February 16, 2018

Assessment Takes On a New Meaning | From the Bell Tower

Academic librarians are getting more focused on assessment—a good thing—but mostly to find out if we achieve our outcomes. Another kind of assessment is getting more attention in higher education.

Events of the last few years, including some horrific mass murders on campus, remind us that colleges and universities are vulnerable to the dangers of an unpredictable and violent world. One positive outcome is that many of our institutions now think more broadly and act more intentionally to make where we work, and where our students learn and live, as safe as possible. That happens when planners consider all types of possible threats to our well-being, do what is reasonable to prevent them from actually occurring, and put into place mechanisms that would minimize damage and loss should they come to pass. Threat assessment is an entirely new sub-field emerging within higher education administration. Given that past events point to students and workers as the greatest danger for creating harm, it is particularly challenging to assess who among the thousands of people on any campus pose a threat, and when and where something could go wrong.

Think like a risk manager

I think about risk management more frequently than most librarians because my spouse is a risk manager. A trip to the store or a walk through the city might bring on a series of observations about potential dangers and risk hazards, and how they could be better managed. After a while you start to think that way yourself. Smoothing out lumpy carpets before someone trips, noticing broken chairs before someone sits on them or spotting that piece of broken ceiling tile that could fall on someone—that mindset has become more ingrained in my daily activity. That’s what good risk managers try to do. They see the benefits of having every staff member think about potential risks, but also take the time to scan and analyze the environment to prevent problems before they begin. The physical types of risks are the easier ones to spot. You can see it, you know it’s a risk, and you get it fixed before something bad happens.

Risk that can’t be seen

What challenges higher education institutions now is the intangible type of risk that’s far more insidious, dangerous, and difficult to identify and correct. It’s the risk created by the members of the community. One cause for concern is the dramatic increase in students coming to campus with mental health issues. Between 1998 and 2009, the number of students coming into counseling who were diagnosed with at least one mental disorder increased 3 percent, from 93 percent to 96 percent. The percentage diagnosed with moderate to severe depression increased from 34 percent to 41 percent. Seventy-seven percent of the Directors from 424 campus counseling centers responded to a survey in which they indicated that psychological problems had increased on their campuses. Numbers like these rightly inform colleges and universities that they need to be watchful for even the slightest indicators that a student might turn violent, or act out in ways that would present a clear danger to other members of the campus community.

Different type of assessment

Academic librarians recognize the importance of assessment for measuring and determining the effectiveness of their work. Rarely do they think of assessment in terms of measuring potential risk. Given the crowds that frequent the campus library these days, perhaps more attention needs to be paid to the potential for danger in any public space that attracts large numbers of people and offers easy access. Some colleges and universities are being proactive. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, since the shooting incident at Virginia Tech in 2007, many more colleges and universities have established threat assessment teams. Recognizing the difficulty in identifying a potential threat, these teams bring together staff from areas such as student life, residence life, campus security, counsel, disability services, and counseling. Though these teams don’t typically include library representatives, academic librarians need to be cognizant of their role in institutional threat assessment. While we don’t have the proper expertise to serve on an assessment team, our role should be one of staying alert to potential threats, being aware of the resources our institutions offer for dealing with such threats, and communicating with the threat assessment team as needed.

Risk Assessment at the Academic Library

When it comes to campus risk assessment, which now must deal as much with people as it has with places, what is the library connection? As the place on campus open to all community members, library staff may come into contact with virtually any current or past student. In my experience, it is not uncommon for library workers to observe or encounter the type of behavior that might raise some questions about a student’s state of mind. As the Chronicle article states, “no one has a crystal ball for predicting when a student who makes a threat or shows signs of disturbing behavior might actually carry out a violent crime.” That’s why threat assessment is a campus community responsibility. Threat assessment teams depend on us to share reports of bizarre or threatening behavior. It may be something we see or hear that strikes us as odd or creates some discomfort, or we may take note of a pattern of behavior that we suspect may be a sign of instability. What we think is a cause for concern may be harmless, but vigilance is required just the same. It need not mean we must become overly suspicious of everyone who enters the library. It just means being more aware and taking action. If we simply ignore the warning signs or fear the consequences of getting involved, we do our colleagues and students a disservice.

Academic librarians can take pride in the role they play in supporting student academic performance and retention services. Let’s remember that our duty also extends to those students who struggle with mental health problems. Threat assessment is by no means an academic librarian’s area of expertise, but it is a form of assessment that should be a part of the good work we do.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. People properly feel uneasy about calling in a “possible threat” just because someone was acting touchy or distracted. We all feel touchy or distracted at times. People who are lost in thought (a state proper to library users) often get that way when interrupted or blocked. There’s strong resistance to the idea of calling the cops on someone who appears to be having an off day but hasn’t done anything wrong. Maybe we need someone we can call who can make expert observations and *that* person can, on professional judgment, call the cops or activate some other kind of intervention.

    • I agree Mark. Librarians would need to pay attention to the difference to some one-off behavior that indicates someone is having a bad day – and most often nothing comes of it – but that also when trouble can break out. However, threat assessment would focus more on looking for patterns of behavior. It wouldn’t be one-time – but more like multiple times. More often than not, what triggers action is some type of behavior that is clearly out of the norm or associated with an unstable personality. I take your point, but I do believe many librarians could observe and report what is truly worth reporting – and not create a rash of false alarms.