Violent incidents at academic institutions have spurred universities to adopt formal procedures designed to keep campuses safer. But do the tactics work?
In many pictures of her online, Kayla Bourque looks like a typical college student: there are selfies of her on a coastal holiday, or smirking mischievously after an experiment in hair colour. But in 2012, Bourque, then a criminology student at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, told a classmate that she fantasized about killing a homeless person and that she was studying forensics so that she could get away with it. She also talked about killing her family pets and neighbourhood cats.
The classmate told a teaching assistant what Bourque had said, and the department chair called campus security. This triggered a formal process called a threat assessment, in which security, university administrators and outside consultants gathered evidence and evaluated Bourque's recent behaviour. They took the allegation seriously, says Stephen Hart, a forensic psychologist at Simon Fraser who advised on the case. "Often something like this is a cry for help," he says. But her actions on several occasions suggested that she might pose a threat to other students, so simply referring her to the university's outpatient mental-health services would not suffice. The team notified the local police, and told Bourque that she would not be able to return to university without a thorough psychological evaluation.
Then, while university employees were packing up her dorm room, they found what has been described in court documents as a 'kill kit': a bag containing a kitchen knife, a razor blade, latex gloves, a syringe and plastic ties--the kind used to restrain people. "They realized that this wasn't just a call for help," says Hart. The discovery led to a search warrant for her computer, on which police found violent pornography, disturbing artwork and more selfies, including one of her standing naked next to her disembowelled dog, Molly.
Bourque spent nine months in custody in 2012 for killing Molly, as well as her cat Snowflake, and for possession of a weapon. When she was released it was with an impressive list of probationary conditions, including not using the Internet unsupervised, informing anyone she interacts with about her crimes, never owning a pet, and staying away from Simon Fraser. As horrifying as the case is, Hart sees it as a major triumph for the growing field of threat assessment.
Although they are exceedingly rare, the number of violent incidents reported on college and university campuses has been increasing. Recently, academic institutions have served as the backdrop to a series of highly publicized attacks--and sometimes scientists are the central figures. In 2010, Amy Bishop, a biology professor, gunned down three fellow faculty members at the University of Alabama at Huntsville after being denied tenure (see Nature 465, 150-155; 2010). Two years later, James Holmes withdrew from his PhD studies in neuroscience at the University of Colorado Denver about a month before killing 12 people and wounding 58 at a cinema in Aurora....
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