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School shooting sprung Columbus State faculty member into action

Chip Reese talks about Columbus State’s behavioral intervention team

CSU Vice President for Student Affairs Chip Reese discusses CSU's behavioral intervention team, BART, which works to identify, assess and reduce threats on the college's campus.
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CSU Vice President for Student Affairs Chip Reese discusses CSU's behavioral intervention team, BART, which works to identify, assess and reduce threats on the college's campus.

April 16, 2007, began like any other day for Chip Reese, the then-dean of students at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia.

Reese strolled through the student center on campus and stopped to watch the news headline that popped up on the TV.

“I saw something, and I said, ‘Wow, what’s going on here?’” Reese said. “I said, ‘Good Lord, what is happening on that college campus?’”

At Virgina Tech, some 600 miles away, a gunman opened fire at the university, killing 32 students and faculty over the course of about two hours.

The shooter, 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho, mailed videos, photos and writings to NBC News, but the organization did not receive them until two days after the shooting.

At that moment, Reese knew something had to change on college campuses.

“That’s a day in higher education that we all remember very well,” Reese said. “The world just changed … And then you start thinking — if it can happen in one place, it can happen in another place. None of us are immune to this.”

So, Reese got to work.

Putting the pieces together

In February 2008, Reese took a job as dean of students at Columbus State University. He is now the associate vice president of student affairs.

One of his first tasks came from Gina Sheeks, the then-vice president of student affairs. They were tasked by the chancellor of the University System of Georgia to create a team in response to the “Virginia Tech incident.” Their goal was simple: identify troubled students and provide them with resources. Reaching that goal, however, was not.

The team, now known as the Behavioral Assessment and Recommendation Team (BART), was small at first. Members were representatives from departments and organizations across CSU’s campus.

In the beginning, Reese stumbled across the National Behavorial Intervention Team Association (NaBITA). The nonprofit education and support group for colleges and universities provides education, resources, and support to those who endeavor every day to make their campuses and workplaces safer through caring prevention and intervention, according to their website.

Reese had similar ideas on how to better prevent incidents like mass shootings on college camps, starting with early intervention.

“The idea of waiting until someone has a gun on campus is really late in the game to get involved,” said NaBITA executive director Brian Van Brunt.

The idea behind early intervention is, Reese said, to find better ways to reach out to a troubled person, or a potential disruptor, before a dangerous incident happens, and to “put the pieces together” before anything happens.

“There was always this idea of, if we had known all these other things, we could have reached out to this person before we had this incident,” Reese said. “... If you wait until the TV is on, it’s easy to put the pieces together.”

One way to connect the dots beforehand, Reese said, was to get a team together. Another, he said, was to come up with a method, or “vehicle,” to report suspicious activity so all reported red flags are gathered in one place.

BART’s website includes details on which behaviors to report, such as violent fantasy content, stalking and interest in previous shooting situations, and even has an entire brochure on the difference between disruptive and dangerous behavior, complete with examples of each.

Individuals fill out a report, which then goes into a database that can be accessed by a disciplinary team. Reports can be filled out on BART’s website, and individuals can speak directly with a BART member through a link on the website.

“The reports come in, and a couple of things come together from different areas, and you bring the team together and say ‘we need a broader look at what’s going on with this individual,’” Reese said.

Catching the eye of a lawmaker

Reese and Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolly rekindled an old friendship when Reese moved to Columbus. Jolly connected him with congressman Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.).

Ferguson said he was impressed with the “very intentional work” being done at CSU by Reese, in trying to identify troubled students and providing them with resources.

He said Reese pointed to several examples in which BART was able to save students, either from dropping out of school or causing harm to themselves. Reese does not remember the specific instances Ferguson was referring to, but one case sticks out to him among all the ones he’s been involved in.

One semester, a third-year student who had never appeared in the reporting system (no misconduct, no academic issues) was reported twice in a matter of hours. The student had “gotten into a scuffle” with his roommate after allegedly plagiarizing a paper that belonged to the roommate’s girlfriend.

Upon meeting with the student, Reese discovered that both of his parents had lost their jobs, and the student was working two jobs, which caused him to fall behind in school. They talked things out and figured out the best way to approach the situation, and the student had no more issues.

The student “disappeared,” Reese said, until graduation. At graduation, the student greeted Reese with a giant bearhug.

“He said, ‘hey man, you saved my life,’” Reese said. “He said, ‘I was thinking about killing myself when you guys called me in.’ ... What if we didn’t have a vehicle to do that? The first time I met his parents could have been at a hospital, saying, ‘I’m so sorry.’”

Thus, HR 3539 was born, called the Behavioral Intervention Guidelines act of 2019. It’s also known as the BIG ACT.

The bill, in its first stage of legislation, was introduced into Congress on June 27. Ferguson’s press release regarding the bill references Reese, CSU and NaBITA by name.

HR 3539 calls for an amendment to the Public Health Service Act “to direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop best practices for the establishment and use of behavioral intervention teams at schools.” Best practices include an emphasis on communication between departments and the establishment of response teams similar to BART.

“(Teams similar to BART) could be replicated across the country,” Ferguson said.

In the first stage, bills are referred to committees, which debate the bill before possibly sending it on to the whole chamber. The BIG Act was referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

“We think the work that’s been done (at CSU) and at Texas A&M University are very good models,” Ferguson said. “What we’re hoping to do with the BIG Act, is to take these best practices and push them throughout.”

Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Macon Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.
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