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   from the issue of November 16, 2006

  Scalora's threat assessment knowledge draws local, state and national interest

Man in demand


Mario Scalora's belt is loaded with electronic devices that beep and vibrate at irregular intervals.

LPS CONTACT - Mario Scalora (left) talks with David Medina and Arlyn Uhrmacher, both of Lincoln High School, during an Oct...
 LPS CONTACT - Mario Scalora (left) talks with David Medina and Arlyn Uhrmacher, both of Lincoln High School, during an Oct. 20 presentation to Lincoln Public Schools representatives. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.

"I've already been buzzed five times this morning," he said, silencing his pager. "And this is not necessarily a busy day."

Psychology professor Scalora, is, as they say, in demand. In addition to his teaching obligations, he maintains a number of contracts with different organizations, including Lincoln Public Schools, the UNL Police Department, the state hospital - where he coordinates forensic mental health services - and the U.S. Capitol Police in Washington, D.C. As he fields interview questions, Scalora signs a stack of recommendation letters for graduate students. If he can't multi-task, he can't get everything done.

Scalora has one goal when it comes to his clients: to provide threat assessment training in an effort to prevent acts of violence or terrorism.

Locally, this work takes Scalora into meetings of LPS administrators and staff. He recently conducted a training session that focused on identifying behaviors that could lead to violence in the schools.

"What I have to do is talk to people and help them imagine if hell might happen, and then how to deal with it," Scalora said. "People often think of violence like a school shooting happening out of the blue, but when you look at the incidents that have occurred, they reflect a lot of planning. There were warning signs. Part of my job is to help make people aware of what the warning signs may look like, so as a result they enhance their own safety and security."

Otherwise, he said, schools are operating in a strictly reactive mode. If school officials look at these incidents of violence as part of a continuum of activities of escalating threat, they can address these warning signs earlier. By operating in this proactive mode, schools can prevent many problematic consequences. Alternatively, in purely reactive mode, all they can do is try to decrease casualties.

"School safety is not controversial, but it's a sensitive issue," Scalora said. "We provide much more security around places that manage money - insurance companies, banks - than at schools. But stick 600 kids in an elementary school and a predator walks in, and you see a very different mindset about security. It's not lost on people that prey on vulnerable folks that this difference exists."

The beauty of a threat management approach, Scalora believes, is that it allows people to consider ways in which they can help themselves be safe in advance of a violent incident. It puts the concepts of safety and security on the table without turning environments such as schools and office buildings into armed camps.

A range of things could pose a threat at a school - a sexual predator, an act of terrorism, a school shooting, or violent action taken by a disgruntled family member. All of these are situations with identifiable warning signs, Scalora believes. They beg for vigilance and planning for all contingencies.

Much of the framework for threat management is already in place in public schools.

FULL HOUSE - Lincoln Public Schools administrators and staff employees listen as Mario Scalora gives a threat assessment presentation Oct. 20...
FULL HOUSE - Lincoln Public Schools administrators and staff employees listen as Mario Scalora gives a threat assessment presentation Oct. 20 at the Shrine Sesostris Center, 1717 Yolande Ave. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.


"We know schools do a good job of dealing with bullies and problem students," Scalora said. "So we talk about how trends toward violence have evolved over time, and how these individuals have learned from each other. There's a lot of information out there on crafting weapons, or planning these acts. Post-Columbine, many (perpetrators of school violence) talked about what they learned from Harris and Klebold."

An unfortunate truth is that terrorism, school violence and stalking behaviors morph over time because people look at what other individuals have done, and learn new ways to subvert security. Because of this, schools and businesses must look at these incidents as an evolving phenomenon.

"The other things we talk about are what might be some warning signs," Scalora said. "We don't focus on profiles. There is no one profile, because there is such a range of motivations for violence. But if you keep it behavioral and look at things that may pose a risk to people, not only are you targeting your limited resources, but the people who witness these warnings signs are going to be more inclined to come forward when they have a concern."

Within LPS, Scalora is looking at how administrators are documenting incidents, and in trainings he helps school officials assess their preparedness for crisis situations.

"This is the first training I've been to that focused on the psychology and thought process behind people who do violent things," said Arlyn Uhrmacher, associate principal at Lincoln High School, who attended the Oct. 20 training. "It's very helpful to have some background and information, and to learn about the kinds of things that we should watch out for."

Scalora and his students also benefit from interacting with local school leaders and officials.

"It provides great learning opportunities for our trainees," said Scalora. "It allows us opportunities to do research that is operationally relevant, and also provide a service to the community. Really, it covers all of the major aims of a land grant university."

Graduate students are critical for helping collect data, observing and helping collect educational materials. They get to observe consultations, and augment a database of threatening contacts that have been identified across all levels of government.

"This is in reality a nice career counseling activity, which shows a different side of mental health services, one that is nontraditional for psychology," Scalora said. "There's never a boring day for folks who consult with these types of agencies. And we're one of the few universities doing research in these areas; usually the research is agency based."

Scalora came to UNL in 1989 to work with the Center on Children, Families and the Law. In 1997, he joined the psychology faculty and his research in threat management "took off." He has maintained a relationship with the Nebraska State Patrol for years, and 10 years ago he was approached by the U.S. Capitol Police. He has been collaborating with them since, conducting research on trends in threats and predictive factors.

He offers the example of the post-9/11 anthrax scare. Since all mail to Capitol Hill must now be irradiated, people are being encouraged to communicate electronically with their members of Congress. This has led to changes in threat management. People communicate differently electronically; they are likely to be more impulsive, or fire off e-mail when they are angry, only to regret their actions later. Assessing and planning for new and emerging types of threats is an important component of his work.

Perhaps most importantly, Scalora does not waste time considering the possibility of failure.

"If you walk in with a mindset that you can't do anything about a situation, then yes, you'll fail," he said. "If you walk in with a mindset that this is just a challenge to our communities, then you'll do something about it."

He takes his own advice to heart. "If there are 10 percent of things we can't do anything about, hell, I'm OK with attacking the other 90," he said.



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