When it comes to workplace violence threat assessments, the year 2007 was particularly tragic.
That year Virginia Tech, as a gunman on campus murdered 32 people. Further, after the tragedy, state and university administrators realized they knew little if anything about how to prevent an incident like this from occurring again.
However, then Governor Tim Kaine and Bill Leighty, his chief of staff, knew something needed to be done. Incidents such as this were starting to become more frequent. Something had to be done to help prevent them.
After the incident, investigators learned that the gunman, Seung Hui Cho, had what investigators called a “troubling pattern of behavior,” including stalking incidents, property destruction, intimidation of professors, and statements of wanting to commit suicide. Yet, Cho remained on campus.
“There was an abundance of evidence in his particular case that a threat was possible, but no formal mechanism in place for someone [student or staff] to report it or determine whether the threat was real or not,” said Leighty.
Workplace Threat Assessments – the great afterthought
As referenced earlier, when schools, universities, businesses, or healthcare facilities experience such a violent incident, it’s often afterwards – when it’s far too late – that they grasp that not only are few – if any — mechanisms in place to report the possibility of a threat, but no mechanisms are in place at all to prevent or mitigate a future incident.
The University responded by creating a threat assessment team headed by a University of Virginia (UVA) professor. The team’s mission: to prepare a threat assessment guide to help prevent such tragedies in the future.
While the guide proved helpful for many years and was even adopted by other universities, everything began to unravel when Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. shot and killed three UVA football players and wounded two others in November 2022.
In this case, the shooter was known to the school’s Threat Assessment Team and the team had even interviewed Jones’ roommate, concerned that Jones presented a threat to himself and others. The roommate denied there was a problem, and no further steps were taken.
“We are living in a very troubling world today,” says Oscar Villanueva, a threat assessment expert and COO of TAL Global. “We must take as many steps as possible to prevent or minimize the chances that people are killed.”
Villanueva points to the fact that in 2007, the year of the first UVA incident, there were only about eight mass shootings in the U.S.
As of May 2023, there have already been 184 mass shootings. *
So, we are all on the same page, a “mass shooting,” also called an active shooter incident, is defined by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is an event in which one or more individuals are “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.”
Implicit in this definition is the shooter’s use of a firearm, although active assailant attacks can also occur using a knife, vehicle or other weapon.
The FBI has not set a minimum number of casualties, but U.S. statute (the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012) does, defining a mass shooting as “3 or more killings in a single incident.”
The power of a threat assessment is that it is a proactive approach to identifying, investigating, assessing, and developing a strategy to prevent threats of violence “with the goal of helping to prevent, mitigate and manage such incidents,” says Villanueva.
- Conducting interviews of witnesses, managers and other stakeholders close to the situation to determine the credibility of the threat and how to move forward in handling this employee.
- Conducting a background and social media investigation to determine past behavior related to violence
- Conducting a “threat of violence background investigation” and a social media investigation to see if he discussed his violent intentions online.
- Have behavioral health and security experts review the information collected and provide their insights.
- Evaluate the findings and present them to key stakeholders with steps they can take to prevent, mitigate or manage the situation. “It appears the UVA shooting caught everyone by surprise and off guard,” Villanueva says. “No organization can afford to be caught off guard today.”
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