The University of Arizona

Violence Prevention Expert Urges Safety First, Fairness Second When Responding to Campus Threats

By Alexis Blue, University Communications | March 2, 2011

The UA's Behavioral Assessment and Management Team works to investigate reports of threatening behavior on campus.

Joel Dvoskin, a senior psychologist with the Threat Assessment Group, stressed the importance of early detection during a panel discussion on identifying threatening student behavior.
Joel Dvoskin, a senior psychologist with the Threat Assessment Group, stressed the importance of early detection during a panel discussion on identifying threatening student behavior.

When encountering threatening behavior on campus, it's important to remember safety first, fairness second, a violence prevention expert told members of the campus community on Tuesday.

"The University is the state capitol of fairness. You guys care about fairness in a way that's really inspiring; but fairness isn't the most important thing in the whole world," said Joel Dvoskin, a senior psychologist with the Threat Assessment Group – an organization that offers workplace violence prevention training to organizations throughout the country. "The most important thing in the whole world is staying alive so you can be fair tomorrow. So if you're having a conversation with somebody and they're frightening you, get out of there."

Dvoskin, who is also a clinical associate professor of psychiatry in the College of Medicine, was the main speaker in a panel discussion held on campus Tuesday about identifying and responding to threatening student behavior.

He stressed to an audience of about 200 people that early detection is the best way to prevent violence on campus. He told the crowd that if they remembered only one thing from his presentation, it should be: "Early is good, and late is bad."

The sooner a troubled individual or troubling situation is identified, the easier it is to get help for a person or resolve a problem, Dvoskin said.

"The longer you wait, the fewer options there are," he warned.

Tuesday's 12:30 p.m. discussion in the Student Union Memorial Center's Gallagher Theater, hosted by the UA's Office of Instruction and Assessment, covered common myths about campus violence, types of threats that might be encountered in a college setting, keys to violence prevention, and common errors committed by individuals faced with potential threats. The presentation included a question and answer session with members of the UA's Behavioral Assessment and Management Team.

The discussion occurred a month after the tragic Tucson shooting on Jan. 8 that killed six and injured several others. The accused gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, was a former Pima Community College student who was suspended after allegedly exhibiting disruptive behavior in class.

Dvoskin said most people will exhibit mild forms of misconduct before severe misconduct takes place, and the key is to recognize and report those warning signs early when a person can still be offered help. That is often preferable to termination or expulsion of an individual, which makes it impossible for the University to monitor or influence them and could lead the troubled person to retaliate.  

He emphasized that safety should be the concern of everyone on campus, not just the police.

"Safety and security is everybody's job. If it's not your job, don't come here," he said.

The very nature of a University campus, with its physical openness and behavioral tolerance, makes it susceptible to threats, said Dvoskin, who in his consulting with businesses and organizations nationwide said he has "more sleepless nights about universities than all my other clients put together."

However, universities also have the intellectual and personal resources, as well as the strong sense of community, to help prevent common types of campus threats, such as hazing, drugs and alcohol, sexual harassment, weapons violations or even suicide or homicide, Dvoskin said.   

At the UA, members of the Behavioral Assessment and Management Team help keep campus safe by investigating reports of threatening behavior on campus. The team, created in response to the 2002 campus shooting that left three professors dead in the College of Nursing, includes representatives from the UA Police Department, Human Resources, the Dean of Students Office, Campus Health and other areas.

Team members who participated on the panel echoed Dvoskin's oft-repeated mantra that "early is good, and late is bad" when it comes to threat detection.

Although Dvoskin cautioned against profiling people based on stereotypes, he also said one shouldn't hesitate to report what they perceive as threatening behavior, even if they might be wrong about someone.

Mostly, it comes down to instinct, Dvoskin said.

"Your common sense is the best friend you have to be safe."

For more information on dealing with disruptive and threatening behavior, visit the Dean of Students website, which has information on University policies as well as a pintable booklet of "Disruptive and Threatening Student Behavior Guidelines for Faculty and Staff."