Bev Baligad
Bev Baligad

This editorial by University of Hawaiʻi–West Oʻahu‘s Bev Baligad ran in Honolulu Civil Beat on December 9, 2021.

I remember clearly what I was doing in 1999 on the day a shooting occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado.

I was driving when I heard the news on the radio. I was so shocked that I pulled over and turned up the volume to hear more. Fifteen people were killed, and 21 injured by two gunmen who were students.

How did this happen, I thought? Schools are supposed to be safe places for kids, right?

In 2007, the horror repeated, this time at an institution of higher education. Thirty-three campus community members were killed and 23 injured by a fellow student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

I was then employed at a large community college in Michigan and many of us in higher ed had previously thought: What happened at Columbine could never happen in an institution of higher education. After all, we deal with the education of adults—contributors to our society. They would never do that on our campuses, right?

On Nov. 30, a shooting occurred yet again, in the second place I once called home for 15 years: Michigan. The deaths of four students there hit home for me. And the reality is, it could hit yet another home if things don’t change: Hawaiʻi.

Sadly, gun violence continues to happen, and not just in schools. While legislators and members of the public focus on gun rights—who should versus who should not have guns, if at all—we need to think more broadly. Especially when it comes to school safety efforts for our keiki and our community.

We need to focus on being proactive, not reactive. Reacting to violence in our schools that has already occurred is way too late.

How do we focus on being proactive and not reactive? The answer is not new.

Since Columbine, the Secret Service, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, has written a series of reports focused on the use of “Threat Assessment” within school settings. Across the United States (certainly states that have had to deal with tragedies that have occurred within their jurisdiction), the creation of behavior intervention/threat assessment teams (BITAT) that identify, assess, intervene and appropriately manage concerning behavior in schools have become a national best practice.

Schools that don’t have these teams operating in their schools and campuses yet are at risk.

Why do BITATs work? Individuals closely connected to the threat assessment community will tell you that cases where an individual engages in these acts of violence are rare. Usually, individuals who engage in violent behavior don’t just “snap.” There were clues and signs, but no one was able to connect the dots using an effective multidisciplinary approach. That’s what a well-trained BITAT does.

The University of Hawaiʻi–West Oʻahu has such a team. We meet and gather information available to the institution (for a legitimate educational purpose) and information provided from members of the community. We assess what the issues are and appropriately deal with them in a respectful and caring manner that respects the civil rights of our community in a reasonable and methodical manner.

What will it take for more teams to be created and why aren’t we trying to focus more on the state’s efforts to not have school violence occur in our schools?

We are required to attend meetings and continue with training in the area of threat assessment, campus processes and UH system policies. Other areas such as the first amendment and due process, mental health issues and federal regulatory compliance areas that intersect with potential threat assessment issues (such as Title IX and the Clery Act) within our campus are also required training for team members.

The UH West Oʻahu Behavior Intervention Team has been in place and functioning at national best practices since 2017 and is seen as a leader in the state regarding threat assessment. It is a campus team and process that continues to be supported by the leadership on our campus.

Efforts to help implement and train other teams within the state have begun under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s 2021 Targeted Violence and Threat Prevention grant recently awarded to UH West Oʻahu. Under the grant, two UH campuses and two Hawaiʻi Department of Education school BITATs are being implemented. But more needs to be done.

By my calculation, there are still more than 280 state DOE schools that do not have a formalized BITAT. DOE schools need resources to assist in identifying, assessing, intervening, and managing these types of cases.

What will it take for more teams to be created and why aren’t we trying to focus more on the state’s efforts to not have school violence occur in our schools, instead of merely waiting to respond to tragedies such as those experienced in Colorado, Virginia, and now Michigan?

Let’s not wait until these tragedies occur in our state to our keiki. Let’s do something now before someone in our ohana gets hurt.

—Bev Baligad, is the director of compliance and Title IX and Clery Compliance Officer at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu. She is chair of the UH West Oʻahu Behavior Intervention Team.