In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 people 11 years ago, the University of Texas of the Permian Basin formed a behavioral intervention team to help students who might be in danger of harming themselves or others.
Odessa College also has a team that formed in 2014. Both have their own meeting schedules, but officials said they can come together fast if circumstances dictate.
Typically made up of UTPB Senior Associate Vice President Teresa Sewell, a member of the counseling center and the UTPB Police Department, they meet and evaluate the student and circumstances and determine the appropriate course of action, its website said.
“The goal of the team is to maintain a healthy and safe environment for the UTPB community,” the site said.
Sewell said the shooting at Virginia Tech was the catalyst because there had been incidents or active shooters where different people may have noticed something about a student, but there was no way to talk about these students and reach out to them and see if they could intervene.
The frequency of behavioral intervention team meetings depends on the need and Sewell said they talk to each other periodically to get updates on what’s going on or changes to procedures or staff.
“Sometimes we may not meet for several weeks and then sometimes we’ll meet a couple of times in a week, just depending on what gets reported to us,” Sewell said.
Characteristics of someone who might be having issues are that they usually dress nicely and suddenly they’re hygiene level declines. They may have become less talkative and withdrawn with friends and they’re not speaking up in class, Sewell said.
Even if the report doesn’t seem serious, they always look into it. Typically, people with concerns call Sewell, the counseling center, police department or the residence hall staff. A team meeting will then be held to discuss what’s going on with the person and how they can be helped.
“Sometimes we’ll contact a student and they’ll say, ‘I appreciate your efforts, but I’m fine.’ Sometimes we’ll make contact with students and minimally tell them about the counseling center and the services there,” Sewell said.
Counselors won’t divulge if someone has been to see them, but Sewell said the students will sometimes say they didn’t know the services were available and they needed help at that time because they were struggling with something.
Sewell said there is a full-time psychologist on staff and the university is seeking another counselor.
“College students are dealing with so much anxiety and depression these days,” she said.
Amanda Goza, director of the counseling center on campus, has been at UTPB about two and a half years. This is her first posting at a university. Previously, she had worked in a hospital and residential rehabilitation setting.
Goza said the behavioral intervention team helps everybody get on the same page in terms of being alert to students who may potentially have a problem and helping to find a solution.
“We’re all able to get into a room and talk about the pieces we’re able to share and it helps us know how to move forward,” Goza said.
Goza added that she thinks the student population is more complex than it used to be because life is more complex. There also is a lot more anxiety and depression occurring on campus nowadays. There also are relationship issues that come up.
She said she sees about 20 students a week. Goza added that she usually has a base of people who have been coming to her for a while working on significant issues and a lot of people who come in once or twice for a more immediate problem.
“We have a very diverse student population here, so I think that brings its own stressors,” she said.
UTPB Police Chief Tom Hain has been at the university for about 10 1/2 years and in law enforcement for 34 years total. Most of that has been in city and county law enforcement. When he started at UTPB, there were about 2,500 students and now there are around 7,000 with 1,200 to 1,300 beds.
“The benefit that I see is that with several thousand students you can have a professor that sees the student day in and day out, kind of like a family member does, then when they see a change they can go on to a site and email the team, or pick up the phone and call any one of us,” Hain said.
He added that it allows the team to intervene early if there is an issue.
Without this system, Hain said there would be people who would slip through the cracks.
“In this arena, staff, faculty and students themselves know there’s a place to go to report things so there can be an intervention,” Hain said.
Something bothering a student could be a death in the family or another type of loss.
“Fortunately, that’s the case a lot of times,” he said.
Hain observed that the university is having a lot of growing pains, and although it is still an intimate atmosphere, the increase in population is another reason to have the BIT in place.
He wishes there could be a mechanism like this in place for conventional law enforcement, but that would be impossible.
Odessa College Director of Student Life Urisonya Flunder said the OC team usually includes the housing coordinator, chief of police, director of student success, special populations outreach coordinator and a counselor. She said the number can vary depending on the need.
Taking its lead from the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association, Flunder said the BIT meets once a week, which is the procedure other BITs she’s been associated with operate.
There is space for about 230 students to live on campus, she said.
“There is a BIT submission form,” Flunder said. “Anybody can go in and submit a form. You don’t have to be faculty.”
She said staff can submit a report or it can be done anonymously.
“On any college campus, students are going to be dealing with typical things — from homesickness to different relationship issues; just a lot of different things that you would normally see on college campuses,” Flunder said.
She added that college is stressful so OC tries to provide wraparound services to students. During this time, students are trying to find out who they are.
“It’s all part of them growing and developing as a student. Anything we can do to provide assistance with that, we definitely want to do,” Flunder said.
Flunder said she doesn’t think BITs are as prevalent at community colleges as at universities.
“But I will tell you that they’re becoming more and more prevalent. Students are just like any other population. Mental health is something that has to be addressed. We have to make sure we have resources for students, just like we would for any other community,” she noted.
“Most campuses, if they don’t have one they’re probably looking into it. Most places if you’re trying to meet the needs of your students, that’s just a realistic concern to make sure … students are healthy all the way along,” Flunder said.