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Campus Overload
Posted at 03:54 PM ET, 08/10/2012

Aurora movie theater shooting raises questions about university threat-assessment teams


I spent last week in Aurora, Colo., reporting on the aftermath of the mass shooting in a movie theater that left 12 dead and 58 wounded. The assignment quickly took a higher-education focus because the alleged gunman, James Holmes, was a graduate student at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, and, according to his attorneys, he was seeing a school psychiatrist.

In the aftermath of the V irginia Tech massacre in 2007, many colleges and universities were pressured to track and help students and others who might hurt themselves or others. And so the shooting in Aurora quickly raised these questions in my mind: Did that psychiatrist suspect her patient might become violent? And if she did spot red flags, did she alert the proper authorities?


Members of the Adams County Sheriff's Department Hazardous Devices Unit stand near a robot as they search a building at the University of Colorado-Denver's Anschutz Medical Campus on July 23. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) (Ted S. Warren - AP)
Getting answers to those questions has been difficult. I am used to universities declining to provide information on the basis that doing so would violate federal laws protecting student and patient privacy. But in Colorado, there’s an added challenge: When reporters began to ask for public information related to Holmes or the school’s threat-assessment team, university officials alerted the prosecutors handling the case, who then lobbied a judge to order the school not to release any information related to the case, even public information.

The judge granted that gag order. (And, trust me, school officials have aggressively followed it. At one point, a university spokeswoman told me that the school owes the victims of the attack its silence.)

The school did release some information about its threat-assessment team, which was formed after the Virginia Tech shooting. Most colleges and universities have such a team, which is typically composed of police, mental health officials, student affairs administrators and others who regularly meet to discuss students who may pose a safety threat. The goal is to prevent tragedy by spotting clues that a student might be spiraling out of control and quickly intervening.

My colleague Joel Achenbach and I wrote an article about these threat-assessment teams (you can read it here), but at the time the university would only say that the team had taken action about a dozen times.

On Thursday, the university sent us more exact numbers related to its Behavior Evaluation and Threat Assessment team, which goes by the acronym “BETA.” Between April 2010 and July 2012, the school says the team on responded to 337 reported concerns. There were 28 cases referred along to the Office of Community Standards and Wellness that resulted in nine suspensions and one expulsion, according to a letter to The Post from a university lawyer. For the remaining reported concerns, the school says there are no records of outcomes.

Of course, the university will not say if any of those cases involved Holmes. Before the gag order hit, school officials said that Holmes had been part of the neuroscience program and was in the process of withdrawing. The chancellor said at a press conference soon after the shooting that the school had done all it could.

A Denver television station, KMGH-TV, has reported that the psychiatrist who was treating Holmes was alarmed by something he said or did, prompting her to contact members of the threat-assessment team and ask the campus police for a background check. (That has yet to be confirmed by The Post or the host of other media outlets that have tried.) The chairman of the university’s trustees told the local television station that this was the first he had heard of such news.

But that news report seems to have caught the attention of university officials. Soon after, the school announced that it had hired a former prosecutor to conduct an internal review.

“We are committed to evaluating every step in the process to ensure it worked properly,” University of Colorado Denver Chancellor Donald M. Elliman Jr. said in a statement. “We want the community — especially the loved ones of those who lost their lives and the individuals injured in this senseless tragedy — to know our resolve rests with understanding all the facts so we can assist law enforcement and other authorities in ensuring that justice prevails.”

The university has already warned the press that the results of that internal review may not be publicly shared.

For more higher education news, you can follow me on Twitter and Facebook. And here are some other articles that might be of interest:

Live-blog from the day of the Colorado shooting

Colorado shooting: It’s hard to spot threats, experts say

The long road to Theater 9

By  |  03:54 PM ET, 08/10/2012

 
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