Reducing Risk and Increasing Student Retention Through Comprehensive Behavioral Intervention and Threat Assessment Services

Measuring Portfolio Sustainability Exposures

By Tim Cason and Makenzie Schiemann    //    Volume 30,  Number 3   //    May/June 2022

In a time when higher education institutions are highly focused on student and employee retention, and there is increased scrutiny and expectations around creating safe environments, it is critical that institutions have well-trained and resourced behavioral intervention teams (BITs). BITs assist their institutions in identifying and responding to individuals who are exhibiting early-stage signs of distress, are disruptive, or are exhibiting early signs of potentially harmful behaviors toward themselves or others. High-performing BITs will create a safer community and aid in increasing student and employee retention and success.

Many students, faculty, and staff living with mental and physical health conditions, disabilities, and personal life crises are able to navigate the complex environments of higher education institutions without significant barriers or setbacks. However, most institutions are reporting an increasing number of individuals experiencing challenges related to physical, emotional, or psychological needs that could impact their academic and/or employment retention and success. Research from the American College Health Association shows that 72.8 percent of student-survey respondents reported moderate or serious psychological distress in fall 2021.1 This statistic coincides with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including isolation and “economic fallout caus[ing] significant hardship.”2

Although many of the millions of individuals who lost their jobs in the beginning months of the pandemic have obtained new employment, high levels of hardship persist due to many people having too little to eat, being behind on rent, or experiencing other financial strains.3 While many institutions have chosen to have their behavioral intervention teams (BITs) serve employees and students, which is a recommended approach, the majority of the available research specifically highlights the needs of students. Their difficulties affect daily life skills, cognitive functioning, and the ability to perform successfully. Given the wide-reaching impact of students’ difficulties and the connection to student success, colleges and universities may find themselves struggling to determine the best way to support their community members in need.

Many researchers and practitioners agree that effective violence prevention combines threat assessment, early intervention, and support efforts.4 Institutions should equip their BITs with the training and resources to reduce risk by identifying and responding to lower-level warning signs of distress, in addition to assessing high-level incidents involving threats of harm to self or others. Comprehensive training and sufficient resources will enable the BIT to be effective in assessing available information about individuals of concern and developing appropriate response plans to intervene, reduce risk, and connect those individuals to helpful resources. This integrated approach of early intervention and threat assessment allows institutions not only to provide support to any community member in need but also to intervene before a threat or violent incident occurs.5 When BITs are integrated, resources to support the BIT can be centralized for optimization.

In addition to increasing emotional and mental health concerns, colleges and universities are faced with increased pressure to address safety and prevent acts of violence on campus. While BITs do not replace emergency response entities (e.g., police, public safety), institutions must train their BITs in effectively assessing threats of violence to ensure appropriate interventions are implemented to protect the community.

While these challenges may worsen and could lead to incidents of suicidality and/or violence toward others, the “vast majority… will be non-threatening and non-violent, but may still require intervention.”6 Institutions that only utilize a traditional threat assessment model specifically focused on threats of violence toward self or others, and are reactive in nature, miss critical opportunities for early intervention and support efforts.7 Instead, institutions should utilize BITs to manage the spectrum of risk within their communities. BITs were born out of the philosophy that violence is preventable, and the teams have grown into a strategy for student and employee support and retention.

Furthermore, an integrated approach of responding to a spectrum of risk can benefit the institutional community in a multitude of ways. “This collaborative effort reduces the silo-effect, simplifies marketing and advertising, ensures inclusive training, and streamlines database management. It reduces duplication of efforts often found when maintaining two separate teams, creating greater simplicity in advertising to the larger community and keeping those involved in early identification and prevention working closely with those trained in violence risk and threat assessment/management.”8

A variety of incidents, ranging from a lack of access to basic needs to mild distress to high-level threats of violence, can be referred to the BIT. Because of this, BITs benefit from flexible funding so that they may respond to a variety of needs. Funding can be used to help students pay for mandatory assessment fees, team training, marketing and advertising, promotional items, retreats, professional development/ memberships for BIT members, and/or outside consultations and reviews. When a BIT does not have a dedicated budget, BITs are likely to forego best practices with respect to engaging in educational and outreach efforts and making necessary referrals to external resources. Institutions and their leadership should consider partnering with their foundations to raise funds for the BIT to provide the needed level of budgetary support.

With the reduction or elimination of funding and support for many social-service organizations, many communities are becoming more dependent on educational institutions for assistance with meeting basic needs and providing physical and mental health services. More must be done for individuals who are experiencing difficulties but will likely not become violent or are not in need of clinical care. While BITs can serve as a means of identifying students who are experiencing difficulties, resources with which they can connect individuals must be available.

Research by the American Council on Education shows that students experiencing mental health challenges are twice as likely not to graduate, in addition to being more likely to have lower GPAs, take longer to earn credentials because they are enrolling/dropping out at intervals, or drop out completely.9 Additionally, nearly three in five students surveyed said that they experienced basic needs insecurity (i.e., food insecurity, housing insecurity, homelessness) in fall 2020 alone.10 To provide additional support, colleges and universities need funding to hire support staffs that include nonclinical case man- agers who provide assistance to students who need basic resources, as well as clinical providers who offer treatment to those in need of medical care. BITs should serve as a complement to the work of a counseling center/clinical provider and increase access to support. Interventions that only provide clinical mental health support to individuals in distress or crisis miss key opportunities to provide assistance in other domains of an individual’s life (e.g., environmental, occupational, social, intellectual, emotional, physical, cultural/spiritual).

It is critical that institutions have well-trained and resourced BITs, including the hiring of suitable staff, to ensure the provision of appropriate and effective connections to holistic interventions such as suicide prevention services, mental health services, basic needs resources, or peer support to all members of the community. This wraparound, collaborative approach will be more effective in preventing future violence and increasing student success and retention than relying upon uncoordinated efforts of separate departments. When done effectively, investment in the support of your community members through comprehensive and robust support will result in greater student success and retention.

Tim Cason is a consultant for TNG Consulting.

Makenzie Schiemann is president of the National Association of Behavioral Intervention and Threat Assessment.

 


Endnotes

1. See American College Health Association National College Health Assessment Fall 2021 Reference Group Executive Summary at https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-III_FALL_2021_REFERENCE_GROUP_EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY.pdf and American College Health Association National College Health Assessment Fall 2020 Reference Group Executive Summary at https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-III_Fall_2020_Reference_Group_Executive_Summary_updated.pdf.

2. Tracking the COVID-19 economy’s effects on food, housing, and employment hardships. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (n.d.). Available online at https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-economys-effects-on-food-housing-and.

3. Ibid.

4. The Book of BIT (2nd ed.). Available online at https://www.nabita.org/resources/the-2014-nabita-book-on-bit/. Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model. Available online at https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/18_0711_USSS_NTAC-Enhancing-School-Safety-Brief.pdf. “Communication of Intent to Do Harm Preceding Mass Public Shootings in the United States, 1966 to 2019.” JAMA Network. Available online at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2785799.

5. Enhancing School Safety using a Threat Assessment Model. National Threat Assessment Center, July 2018. Available online at https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/18_0711_USSS_NTAC-Enhancing-School-Safety-Guide.pdf.

6. National Threat Assessment Center. (2018, July). Enhancing school safety using a threat assessment model. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from. https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/18_0711_USSS_NTAC-Enhancing-School-Safety-Brief.pdf.

7. Jillian Peterson, Gina Erickson, Kyle Knapp, and James Densley. “Communication of Intent to Do Harm Preceding Mass Public Shootings in the United States, 1966 to 2019.” JAMA Network, November 4, 2021. Available online at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2785799.

8. NaBITA Standards for Behavioral Intervention Teams. NaBITA, 2018. Available online at https://www.nabita.org/resources/bit-standards-2/?tkn=7eb604eb19.

9. Rachel Bishop. “The link between student retention and mental health during COVID-19.” Signal Vine, August 19, 2020. Available online at https://www.signalvine.com/covid-19/the-link-between-student-retention-and-mental-health-during-covid-19#:~:text=The%20results%20of%20the%20annual,health%20during%20COVID%2D19%20is.&text=The%20College%20Life%20Study%20found,more%20likely%20to%20stop%20out.

10. #RealCollege2021: Basic Needs Insecurity during the Ongoing Pandemic. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, March 31, 2021). Available online at https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/RCReport2021.pdf.

11. Peterson, et al.

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