It often starts when a student writes an essay that startles a professor. Maybe they write about harming themselves or about hurting a classmate.
That act, which typically turns out to present no real danger, triggers a response that involves staff from a broad spectrum of departments at NAU. Identifying "students of concern" is the primary role of the university's threat assessment team.
Since NAU students left campus last May, a rash of shooting incidents nationwide by students and former students has captured the country's attention and brought scrutiny and awareness to such teams. But NAU has had a process in place to avoid just such a scenario since even before the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007.
"I think that we've had a great communication system ... for a long time," said Sarah Bickel, associate vice president for Student Affairs. "It's hard when you have 2,000 faculty and 17,000 students," she added.
The team only identifies a few students every year that actually cross the threshold from creepy behavior and trouble-making into being kicked off campus or forced to seek counseling.
And yet, the potential for harm is so great that the group meets every month to discuss how to better identify students that pose a threat and decide what to do with those they've already identified.
MEET ON SHORT NOTICE
The NAU Police Department handles immediately dangerous situations, but the team can also meet on short notice to deal with emerging threats.
Bickel said the team has grown with each major shooting incident, as they learn from the experiences of other institutions. The University of Colorado was criticized in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting because the school had identified the student as a potential threat, but didn't follow up on the information once he was no longer a student.
"This is a very evolving thing," Bickel said.
Chris Gunn, the former director of campus health services at NAU, said that Virginia Tech was a wake-up call for campuses across the country.
He said that NAU already had some systems in place before the 2007 shooting, but that the incident helped set standards in counseling services and helped deans learn how to handle student threats.
"I think NAU has actually done a very good job and has mobilized their committee to assess and intervene pretty quickly with students that are perceived as being a threat to themselves or others," Gunn said.
NAU's team consists of representatives from residence life, student life, legal, the school's police department, employee assistance and wellness, human resources and elsewhere.
They talk monthly about campus issues, which Bickel said includes things like proposed campus gun legislation and how they can make it easier for staff and students to report potential threats.
Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and some community colleges in the state all have similar teams.
Beth Applebee, a member of the threat assessment team and the executive director of campus health services, said that students typically come onto their radar through their behavior in the classroom or in the dorm.
After that, the team comes together and researches the student, looking at their criminal record, background, mental health and searching for themes of acting out in the classroom or dorm.
Bickel said that if the team sees anything troubling, they can require that the student see a mental health professional as part of remaining a student.
If there's a more immediate threat from the student -- say, suicidal tendencies -- the student can be committed against their will until a mental health assessment is done by the Flagstaff Medical Center's Behavioral Health Services.
ONLY A FEW SERIOUS CASES A YEAR
Privacy laws prevent university staff from talking about specific cases, but school officials say that NAU only sees a few serious cases each year.
Despite the media attention, school officials say most students who trigger concern are simply unaware that their behavior is disturbing. Once they've had counseling or been determined their behavior is deemed non-threatening, the students can return to normal student life.
Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.