IOWA CITY, Iowa >> As the fall semester began, communications professor and campus jester Kembrew McLeod organized a parody news conference to poke fun at the University of Iowa’s governing board, expecting annoyed administrators might show up.
Instead, a detective with the campus threat assessment team was there waiting for him.
McLeod said the sending of a detective was at once intimidating and absurd, while public safety director David Visin said it was appropriate, noting administrators had received a phony email inviting them to the news conference from someone posing as a university consultant.
Either way, this much is clear: Eight years after the Virginia Tech massacre led many colleges to form threat assessment teams to identify troubled people and step in before they turn violent, these panels are a work in progress, and their effectiveness and fairness are a matter of debate.
In some cases, critics say, the teams have been used to harass students and professors who posed no threat of violence or to retaliate against critics of the college administration. Lawsuits and embarrassing public relations incidents have resulted. Critics say the teams can have a chilling effect on free speech on campuses.
Supporters of threat assessment teams say they make campuses safer in an age of mass shootings. They say these teams do the vast majority of their work in good faith and are duty-bound to check things out when they raise alarms — which is what happened with McLeod’s satirical, off-campus news conference, according to Iowa officials.
At the news conference, a group of performance artists called The Yes Men pretended to be university cost-cutting consultants. McLeod said the detective asked what they were up to and directed him to call the university president’s office to explain that the event at a public library was "just art."
"I’m not a lone gunman or a terrorist. I’m just a goofy professor with a satirical idea," said McLeod, who is known for dressing as a robot to ask national politicians questions.
Threat assessment teams consist of administrators from several departments who meet regularly to discuss individuals of concern and decide how to respond. They look at a wide variety of cases, such as troubling social media comments and students who seem to be in crisis. A team’s response can include encouraging someone to get mental health treatment or calling in the police to investigate.
Supporters say they believe the teams have thwarted violence on college campuses, but they acknowledge they can’t necessarily prove it — in part, because privacy laws require that most of their activities remain secret, but also because it is difficult to establish why something didn’t happen.
"Prevention is invisible," said University of Wisconsin-Stout police Chief Lisa Walter.
Many teams were set up after it was learned that Virginia Tech administrators had many warning signs about student Seung-Hui Cho but failed to connect the dots and intervene before he killed 32 people in 2007.
But perhaps half the teams nationwide still do not have policies that spell out how they are supposed to operate, said Brian Van Brunt, who trains college administrators as president of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association.
"You have schools that are overreacting. You have schools that use this as an Orwellian, ‘1984’-style monitoring, sometimes in a nefarious or over-authoritarian manner rather than what we teach," he said. "As soon as you give people the tools to watch, you can run into overzealous individuals."
Missteps can prove costly in legal expenses, bad publicity and damage to reputations.
In July, Valdosta State University in Georgia paid a $900,000 settlement to a former student who was deemed a "clear and present danger" by the school president, who was angry with the student for protesting construction of a campus parking ramp.
That case and others have caught the attention of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has represented people who believe they were unfairly targeted by threat assessment teams.
"Too often, campuses overreact to protected speech without first asking the threshold question: Is the incident we’re responding to an example of a student or professor just exercising their basic First Amendment rights?" said Will Creeley, the group’s vice president of legal and public advocacy.
Last year, his organization represented an art professor at Bergen Community College in New Jersey who was placed on paid leave and ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation after campus officials said he threatened violence. His offense: posting a picture online of his young daughter doing yoga while wearing a shirt with a quote from HBO’s "Game of Thrones": "I will take what is mine with fire & blood."
The college backed off the punishment months later, telling the professor it "may have unintentionally erred and potentially violated your constitutional rights."
At the University of Wisconsin-Stout, the campus police chief in 2011 declared that a poster promoting the science-fiction TV series "Firefly" on professor Jim Miller’s office door was threatening and removed it. The poster featured a well-known quote from one of its characters, "If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed."
Miller protested the removal and put up a satirical poster that read, "Fascism can cause blunt trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets."
A threat assessment team declared that, too, was a threat and took it down. Facing a backlash, the school relented and acknowledged its actions undercut its commitment to free speech.
Miller said his treatment revealed "something ugly and nasty running around with these threat assessment teams."
Walter, the campus police chief, called the case a painful learning experience. The school has taken the rare step of forming a free speech committee that will review similar cases in the future.
Retired Virginia Tech threat assessment team leader Gene Deisinger, a pioneer in the field who founded one of the first teams at Iowa State University in 1994, was involved in a case a few years ago that illustrated the challenges.
Deisinger was at Iowa State when he looked into repeated claims by college official Pamela Reinig that a subordinate, Dennis Smith, might go on a shooting rampage.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled last year that Reinig unfairly tried to have Smith — a whistleblower with a clean record — "treated as a scary and mentally unstable outcast" to divert attention from her own mismanagement. The school paid Smith $650,000 last year to settle his lawsuit.
Smith faulted Deisinger for failing to corroborate information brought to him and for not contacting him early in the investigation.
"If he had done either of these things, none of this — the damage to my reputation, the loss of my livelihood, the lawsuit and all of the ensuing fallout — would have happened," Smith said.
Deisinger said the threat assessment team acted appropriately in investigating and eventually concluding Smith wasn’t a threat.