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The Source

New network designed to help safeguard the campus community

February 03, 2010

In 2009, a blue ribbon panel issued a 200-page report to the Virginia governor detailing the events that led up to and included the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. One of the most profound findings to come out of the investigation was that the college was unable to prevent the massacre despite several warnings from faculty and students about the shooter’s disturbing behavior months before. The panel of experts found documented information that had been reported by the shooter’s roommate, a professor who had the shooter in class, and information known by a college counselor about the shooter’s mental health issues.  Despite many warning signs, the college’s system for connecting the dots about the potential for violent behavior was inadequate. 

A key recommendation to grow out of the report was that colleges should create mechanisms where information can be easily shared across departmental divisions so that patterns of behavior can be identified and appropriate cohesive actions can be taken to help individuals grappling with personal crises and keep campuses safe.

As a result, Lewis & Clark has spent the last year reviewing its communication systems related to community members who may be experiencing crises. Staff have improved the communication structure and process to better support a safe, supportive environment on all three campuses. The changes to the communication system have led to the development of a Welfare Intervention Network (WIN) and are being spearheaded by Jeff Feld-Gore, Associate Dean of Students, John Hancock, Associate Dean of Students and Chief Psychologist, and Tim O’Dwyer, Director of Campus Safety. 

The Source spoke with all three to learn more about this new network and how faculty, staff and students can access it.

Could you briefly describe the process to create this new network at Lewis & Clark?

John: In the spring of 2008, several administrative staff began brainstorming how we might improve our ability to respond to health and safety crises that arise in our community. During 2008-2009, we called a cross-section of key stakeholders to the discussion table, including the Provost, the Associate Deans for CAS, the Law School and GSEC, the Dean of Students, the Director of Human Resources, General Counsel, and the three of us. We reviewed what other colleges had learned from recent tragedies. All of the stakeholders shared a common vision:  To improve the flow of communication related to managing health and safety emergencies. 

Why did you choose the name Welfare Intervention Network?

Tim: Some other colleges have developed threat assessment teams to manage situations where there is a risk of interpersonal violence.  In setting up our team, we realized that interpersonal violence is only one situation that puts our community members at significant risk. Threats of suicide, severe substance abuse problems or eating disorders which can endanger a person’s life, domestic violence, and other severe mental health problems (e.g, psychotic behavior) can lead to a crisis in our community. We see ourselves as a network that focuses on promoting the welfare of the individual and the community when we learn of a serious threat like those above.   

Who is involved in WIN and in what capacity?

Jeff: We three are the core members of the WIN, and we exchange information on each WIN case brought to our attention. The exception to this is that John, when acting as Chief Psychologist, cannot share any information that he learns from any confidential or privileged relationships, e.g., in Student Health or Counseling.  We have a long list of consulting members, and for each case, we try to assemble other members from this list to meet the needs of the situation. For example, if the potential crisis involved a student from the Law School, we would involve the Associate Dean of the Law School in our discussion. If the situation involved an employee, we could involve either an Associate Dean or the Director of HR.  Our consulting members include:

  • Associate Director for Health Promotion and Wellness
  • Director of Student Support Services
  • Director of Human Resources
  • Associate Dean of the Law School
  • Associate Dean of the CAS
  • Associate Dean of the Graduate School
  • General Counsel
  • Director of Public Relations
  • Dean of Students
  • Provost
WIN will include the welfare of staff and faculty, as well. Given that recent college or school shootings have involved student shooters, why did you decide to grow the focus beyond students?

Tim: It’s true that several recent high-profile shootings have involved student shooters.  But other high-profile shootings have involved faculty and staff who have been targeted by estranged partners, for example. Employees’ safety can also be at risk related to issues like domestic violence, suicide, or severe alcohol or drug problems. The bottom line is that faculty and staff sometimes have crises where they need external support, too. We think our best possible welfare network is one that supports our entire community.  

What are some signs people might look for to indicate that a student, faculty or staff person might be a harm to themselves or others? 

John: Some behavioral signs can indicate a personal crisis for a given individual, but don’t by themselves lead us to conclude a person could be dangerous to themselves or others. These include dramatic mood changes, withdrawal, hopelessness, recklessness, mild aggression, significant anxiety or agitation, purposelessness, severe sleep problems, lack of attention to personal hygiene, a decline in academic or job performance, or other significant behavior changes. 

Other signs are more concerning and might suggest a person could be at risk for harm to self or others. These include comments or writing about death, dying, or suicide, giving away prized possessions, seeking access to the means of suicide, preoccupation with weapons, threats to others, out-of-control drinking behavior, and psychotic symptoms (loss of contact with reality). 

What should a student, staff or faculty member do if they have a concern about a student or a colleague?

Jeff: If there is an imminent crisis, faculty or staff should always call Campus Safety at 503-768-7777. While WIN can respond to after-hours crises, there is currently no way to access WIN directly after hours. 

We strongly encourage anyone with a concern to be proactive and access WIN when they believe a problem might occur.  I think too often people hesitate and wait until a situation has reached a state of crisis. There is no harm in expressing concern for a student, co-worker or colleague.  Contacting WIN early  will give WIN time to provide the most helpful and thoughtful response.   

Tim: Faculty and staff will want to familiarize themselves with all the members of WIN we mentioned above in question 3. Print out the above list and keep it handy in your desk.  Contact the member that seems to have some responsibility related to the individual in crisis.  For example, if an employee is in crisis, you could activate WIN by calling the Director of HR or (in the case of a faculty member) one of the Associate Deans. If the individual at risk is a student, you could call the Associate Dean of Students or the Chief Psychologist. Faculty and staff will of course, continue to be able to obtain confidential psychological consultation from Counseling Services (including the Chief Psychologist) about students, and these consults are outside the scope of WIN. 

While each situation is unique to the individual involved, how would you describe the general process that has been created to respond to an individual who has raised a concern?

Jeff: The three of us communicate with each other to identify what we know and what we need to know. We decide whether a WIN response is necessary or whether our more traditional structures can respond sufficiently. If we think a WIN response is indicated, we first talk about who else from the WIN team should be involved. We communicate with the team, brainstorm options, and then implement solutions to try to decrease the health risk for the individual or the community. 

Concerns about confidentiality could be a barrier to someone coming forward. What has WIN done to address this?

John: All WIN members are very mindful of the importance of confidentiality to individuals who might have concerns about a third party. We will do all we can to honor an individual’s request for confidentiality.  At the same time, we have an obligation to protect individuals and our community from harm. So at times, we may have to act on information we receive regardless of the preference of the individual who reports it. We are also obligated to document the information we receive and the actions we take in our WIN case files.  Under  FERPA, students will have access to any educational records created by WIN.    

We want to emphasize that this system is designed to offer supportive interventions to community members who are really struggling. We are mindful that some individuals might be reluctant to talk to us because they don’t want to get a person-at-risk into trouble. But we are not a network that exists to get people into trouble. We focus on getting individuals and our community out of trouble related to health and safety risks.  

What three adjectives would you use to describe the process that has been established?

John: It is hard to identify  three single words to describe what WIN is about. Here are a few key ideas: 

1.  We are committed to the development of a caring community for all of our faculty, staff and students. 

2.  We want to provide community members with a clear way of facilitating a supportive and timely response to individuals at risk. 

3.  We focus on collaboration and communication among all our resources so that our intervention can be as effective as possible.  

Anything else?

Jeff: This network gives us the opportunity to intervene and potentially save someone’s life.  We are excited about the program and invite the community to partner with us.