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

Three years after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the University of Colorado at Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus created a team to spot and quickly confront students who might become dangerously violent. The school wanted to be prepared to head off a nightmare.

Tragedy struck anyway. One of the university’s neuroscience graduate students, James Holmes, now sits in jail on charges that he murdered 12 people and wounded 58 more in the mass shooting July 20 at the Century 16 cinema.

Holmes, who was in the process of withdrawing from the university at the time of the shooting, had at some point come under the care of university psychiatrist Lynne Fenton, according to a document filed in court. And Fenton was in a prime position to deal with a potentially dangerous student. According to university records, in 2010 Fenton helped establish the school’s Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment, or BETA, team.

The team has addressed “more than a dozen issues” since its founding, a university spokeswoman said this week. Citing a judge’s gag order, the spokeswoman would not say if one of those cases involved Holmes.

But Denver television station KMGH reported Wednesday evening, citing unnamed sources, that Fenton had called members of the team with concerns about Holmes in early June. The team reportedly decided not to take action once Holmes began to withdraw on June 10.

The university has declined to verify the report, but Wednesday the University of Colorado’s general counsel released a statement that said, in part: “The BETA team is not a law enforcement mechanism.” Fenton has not returned phone calls and messages and did not answer the door at her home.

The university has become a fortress of silence since the theater shooting, but some members of the community here have expressed dismay that one of their own allegedly planned mass murder without detection.

“The signs are there, people just have to look for them,” said Justin Beasley, 32, a fourth-generation Aurora resident as he sat at a park watching his two children play. “We live in a crazy world, and there are a lot of scary people out there who have access to such horrible weapons. It scares me, it scares my wife, it scares all of us.”

One woman, 48, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the preliminary nature of what is known about Holmes, said, “It’s just like with Penn State. Universities are insular, and they tell each other things, but they don’t tell anyone else.”

Experts on threat assessment say it’s an inherently tricky enterprise. They say the most dangerous people do not fit a simple profile. Some of the personality traits common among mass murderers are indistinguishable from the characteristics of harmless individuals who sit quietly in their room playing video games.

Numerous universities have set up threat-assessment teams like the one in Colorado. These groups typically operate above the usual silos of command and protocols in their efforts to identify students, faculty or staff members who might try to harm themselves or others.

“The minute I heard [about the Aurora shooting] I said, oh, a lot of people are going to know about this guy. They probably saw warning signs or red flags earlier, and a lot of people didn’t recognize what they saw,” said Anne Glavin, chief of police at California State University at Northridge and the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

“People don’t just snap. They don’t just go crazy. They don’t just ‘go postal.’ There’s no such thing,” she said.

Case in point: Jared Loughner. Authorities have charged him with opening fire at a January 2011 event hosted by then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, killing six. Before the shooting, Loughner, who has pleaded not guilty, was kicked out of Pima Community College after several run-ins with police and the posting of a bizarre video online. Loughner was told to get a psychological evaluation.

Holmes, 24, doesn’t appear to have made many friends during his year in Colorado. He had also applied to the University of Arizona neurology program but was rejected because he had a lack of affect in his interview, showing no excitement or passion about the program he wanted to join, according to people familiar with his application.

While fellow students described him as extremely reserved, no one has come forward to describe him as clearly dangerous.

“I’ve heard a lot of people talking about him, and the only thing they say is that he was really quiet. That’s it,” said Karly Hudson, a professional research assistant in biochemistry who never met Holmes. “We’re researchers. That’s how we are.”

The Anschutz Medical Campus is part of the University of Colorado at Denver and named for Philip Anschutz, the Denver multi-billionaire who has given more than $100 million to fuel the campus’s rapid growth. The campus has about 3,556 enrolled, nearly all of whom are graduate students.

Fenton has been the director of student mental health services since 2009, a role in which she provides training sessions to faculty and staff members, oversees a small group of therapists and treats 15 to 20 graduate students each week, according to her online biography. Before coming to the university, Fenton was reprimanded by the Colorado State Board of Medical Examiners in 2004 for writing prescriptions for herself, her husband and an employee without proper documentation. Fenton agreed to stop and completed 50 hours of training.

News organizations, citing unnamed sources, have reported that Holmes sent a package to Fenton with a notebook containing details of a planned attack, but the package wasn’t discovered in the mail room until the Monday after the shootings. Holmes’s lawyers argue that the package is protected communication between a doctor and patient.

Although psychiatrists have an ethical responsibility to offer confidential treatment, there are situations in which a doctor can, and legally must, breach the confidentiality and alert authorities to an imminent threat. Every state has its own laws and guidelines about this “duty to warn.”

Colorado’s law states that mental health professionals are protected from lawsuits if a patient turns violent “except where the patient has communicated to the mental health care provider a serious threat of imminent physical violence against a specific person or persons.”

Students with mental health issues have rights under the Americans with Disability Act. This was something that Anschutz leaders, including Fenton, discussed as they created the BETA team, according to meeting notes on the university Web site: “Concern was expressed about students with behavior problems falling back on underlying ADA issues as an ‘excuse.’ Legal decisions often support the student at the expense of the institution.”

There are also laws protecting student privacy, which federal officials clarified after the Virginia Tech shooting. In general, a serious safety threat will trump privacy.

At the Anschutz campus, the BETA team usually convenes or communicates only when it receives a report from someone on campus, spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery said. She said the team has no systematic way of flagging students beyond those reports.

Bill Woodward, a director of training at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, said threat assessment teams too often rely on gut instinct instead of collecting comprehensive data about a person. Research on the indicators of violence is still limited, he said.

“We’re still in the dark ages of threat assessment, I’m sorry to say,” he said.

Achenbach reported from Washington. Carol Leonnig and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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