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At Penn State ‘You Want an Alarm to Mean an Alarm’

“And if you’re always sending out the alarm signal, people will habituate to it and they won’t respond in a way that’s going to protect them and protect the community. So I really find that that has significant value.”

Penn State Lion
(TNS) - With serious school-related threats dominating public discussion, Penn State’s own response has also stirred questions — Who categorizes a threat? What’s the process? — especially in the wake of what’s been deemed a recent non-serious threat on campus.

On May 27, according to an email obtained by the CDT, a university police officer stopped by Penn State’s Kern Building, and staff in the economics advising offices there worked from home, following a student’s “very long and bizarre email mentioning gun laws and mass shootings.” No direct or explicit threats were ever made, a university spokesperson said, and no formal announcement or warning was ever issued.

In today’s climate, even a brief mention of “mass shootings” can understandably stir concern among the community. But, in a recent interview with several members of University Park’s 26-member Behavioral Threat Management Team (BTMT), officials stressed that all reports are taken seriously and investigated — and only those that pose credible ongoing threats are shared publicly, to avoid unnecessary panic.

BTMT officials said they routinely look into several different reports a week, many of which the greater community remains unaware of.

“You want an alarm to mean an alarm,” said Natalie Hernandez DePalma, senior director of Counseling and Psychological Services and a member of the BTMT. “And if you’re always sending out the alarm signal, people will habituate to it and they won’t respond in a way that’s going to protect them and protect the community. So I really find that that has significant value — that when the alarm goes off, that folks are very responsive.”


In the May incident, based upon interviews and an email from an administrator to colleagues in the economics department, the problem began when a student came to the advising offices in Kern with enrollment requests, which were denied because summer courses were more than a week in. According to the email, the unnamed student responded by accusing the staff there of being racist, before later sending multiple emails “trying to bully into getting his way” by threatening to report the staff’s “racist” conduct to other university officials.

What then followed was a “very long and bizarre email mentioning gun laws and mass shootings.” The student’s email, which officials said never made direct or explicit threats, was then reported to a number of other departments and officials — including the BTMT, Counseling and Psychological Services, an associate dean, student conduct and university police. And the student followed up with another email the night of May 26, wondering why he hadn’t received a response and saying he would be in May 27 to get one.

The BTMT, a multidisciplinary team that includes university officials from various departments, assessed the threat before a police officer — and associate dean — then communicated with the student.

“We think the issue is resolved now, as we have already (and will again) gave the student recommendations for enrollment in the courses he wants,” the administrator wrote to colleagues.

Added university spokesperson Rachel Pell, in a written statement to the CDT: “These are complex situations, and the overwhelming majority of such situations are not dangerous but require proper interventions and support.”

The May 27 incident did not rise to the level of needing to issue a partial or campuswide alert, officials said, again emphasizing such alerts should only be used in the case of a significant emergency or a serious, continuing threat. When warranted, Penn State has exercised similar alerts in the past.


In October, Penn State issued two emergency alerts following a reported armed robbery at State College’s Fullington bus terminal, which is tucked among other university-owned buildings. “Seek shelter. Secure doors. Be silent. Be still,” the warnings read. (The report later turned out to be a made-up story from a 40-year-old man to State College police.) In 2016-2018, Penn State thrice informed departmental faculty, staff and graduate students via email about an out-of-state man that posed a credible threat to a professor. The man was eventually apprehended, and charged, once the threats escalated.

Penn State received criticism in 2019 when it declined to issue an alert after a suspect fled following a fatal shooting at P.J. Harrigan’s Bar & Grill, located about 2 miles from campus. But officials have repeatedly explained that they believed the incident did not merit an alert, not because it was not serious, but because it did not pose an “imminent threat to Penn State students.” The May 27 incident — which did occur on campus — did not merit an alert, officials intimated, because it was not a credible threat. (Under the Clery Act, only campus property or public property immediately adjacent to the university requires warnings when the threats are credible.)

“We use national best practices to assess threats,” said Danny Shaha, assistant vice president of Students Rights & Responsibilities and former special agent for the FBI. “We have a matrix that we look at in determining threat levels, what indicators are there, what concerns are there. And is this a low priority? Is it a high priority? Where in the spectrum does it fall?

“We collectively do that.”

Penn State’s BTMT is not an emergency-response unit. When it receives threats — either directly from a community member or, indirectly, from another department — it usually follows the same procedure. Rebecca Bywater, the director of threat assessment, will receive the initial report before it is discussed as a team that includes both law enforcement and mental health specialists.

In some cases, a report might not constitute an actual threat, just a colleague or student acting differently or angrily. In other cases, a threat might appear credible. Regardless, after discussing such reports, the BTMT determines the best course of action — whether police, other specialists or a combination should get involved. Once they do, those involved will report back to BTMT to discuss the response, whether there’s remaining concern and whether different resources are needed.

“Really, the Behavioral Threat Management Team is there to help assess, gather information, determine strategies and then help really guide or influence the appropriate office or professional in their management of the situation,” added Shaha, also a BTMT member.

BTMT officials declined to speak about specific incidents, including Kern, but spoke in generalized terms. When asked why the university doesn’t simply report every instance, if not to the entire campus then maybe to just the appropriate building, one official said it partially came down to creating unnecessary panic and anxiety.

He wasn’t alone in his concern. A 2019 study by a Thomas Jefferson University doctoral candidate polled more than 450 campus security authorities and found that more than one-third worried an unintended consequence of the Clery Act, which requires the reporting of certain crimes on or near campus, included the provoking of a panic.

According to two sources familiar with the Kern situation, many in the campus building either weren’t informed of the incident until around lunchtime May 27 or not at all.

“We all are community members here as well,” Shaha said. “And we all have a vested interest in the safety of this community. And so I think that means we also care about the faculty, staff and students and community that we work with — and so I will say, with confidence, that our team is very dedicated to responding appropriately and helping to ensure this is as safe a community as possible.”

©2022 the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.