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Threat Team creating awareness

BY MEGAN SANCHEZ | SEPTEMBER 19, 2013 5:00 AM

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A national terrorism-alert campaign will soon arrive in Iowa City, bringing the idea of homeland security to the hometown.

The “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign is an effort to raise public awareness on the importance of reporting suspicious activity.

The University of Iowa Threat Assessment Team — a division in the UI police — has been on campus for five years and is working to bring the campaign to Iowa City.

The campaign is one of several projects it is engaged in, with a goal of making its services better known around campus.

William Searls, an associate director of the UI police, said students are the hardest people to educate because they are only here for four years or so.

“We are trying as hard as we can,” he said. “Some of the new [initiatives] are a continued effort to get that information out to everybody and anybody we can.”

Caton recognizes they need to target students more when they are educating.

“Most of our presentations … have been [for] faculty and staff, but we deal with students more than we deal with anybody,” she said.

The team is working with the Dean of Students’ Office and different student organizations to hopefully conduct future presentations specifically for students. The team was established in 2008 after the Virginia Tech shootings, when the state Board of Regents mandated all regent universities have a program to assess threatening behavior.

Its goal is to prevent any violent acts from occurring on campus by students, faculty, staff, or visitors.

Two partners make up the team: UI police Lt. Peter Berkson, the threat-assessment specialist, and Jane Caton, a human-resources consultant with a background in mental health and social work.

They work with representatives of the Dean of Students’ Office, University Counseling Service, Human Resources, UI police, Employee Assistance Program, and General Counsel’s Office to deal with reports of risks on campus ranging from harassment to homicide.

“The goal is to intervene early to prevent a grievance or a problem from getting worse,” Berkson said.

The “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign encourages students and others on campus to report threats they see in the area rather than ignore them.

On the Department of Homeland Security’s website that describes the campaign, the public is encouraged to report situations or behavior that may be described as “suspicious” — such as an unattended backpack in a public area or someone attempting to gain access to a restricted spot.

The on-campus campaign is still in the very early planning stages, but Berkson said the team will start by establishing cost-effective advertising, such as on digital boards.

“[The campaign] really hit home because we really depend on people to report information so that we can try to intervene effectively,” he said.

The team is also implementing a new nine-class series for faculty and staff to educate them on campus resources related to threats. It starts on Thursday and registration has ended.

Presenters will include WRAC, RVAP, and University Counseling. Threat Assessment will kick off the series with a presentation on its services.

The Threat Assessment Team does not want people to ignore any suspicious activity. It would rather get a call that turns out to be a “false positive” than not get the call at all.

“We take tons of calls,” Berkson said. “We don’t want to have a threshold that says ‘You can only call us if …’ We want people to call us if they have suspicions, any concerns, or fears.”


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