School team warned of student held in mass shooting, sources say
Reports of the Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment team at the University of Colorado, Denver, highlight the existence of such teams and raise questions about what the teams can, and can't, do.
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — The psychiatrist who was seeing James Holmes, charged in the deadly mass shooting at a suburban Denver movie theater, reportedly took her concerns about him to a school threat-assessment team.
Dr. Lynne Fenton told the campus Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment, or BETA, team of her worries about Holmes, but no action was taken, sources told The Denver Post.
University of Colorado, Denver, officials could not confirm or deny the report, citing privacy restrictions and a gag order imposed by the judge in the Holmes case.
But the reports highlight the existence of such teams — part of an early-warning system increasingly common at colleges nationwide — and raise questions about what the teams can, and can't, do.
Holmes, 24, was enrolled in a doctoral program at the school's Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora; he dropped out of the university June 10. He faces 24 charges of first-degree murder in connection with the July 20 shooting that left 12 dead and 58 wounded. The attack occurred during a showing of the latest Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises."
Fenton, who has been identified in a court document as Holmes' psychiatrist, is the director of student mental-health services at the campus. She also helped start the assessment team there in 2010, university spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery said.
University Chancellor Don Elliman defended his school: "I believe, until it's been demonstrated otherwise, that our people did what they should have done."
But what the threat-assessment committee did — or didn't — do could raise legal questions. Some questions could focus on the criminal case; others could involve potential civil liability.
About 80 percent of colleges have some form of threat-assessment team, said Brett Sokolow, executive director of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association. The association has 700 to 800 active members and serves as a clearinghouse for information related to threat-assessment teams, including training and implementation.
The field surged after a 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech left 33 people, including the gunman, dead.
Committees vary by institution, but in general a threat-assessment committee is charged with evaluating reports that a student or an employee is having a significant emotional or mental problem. The group then decides the level of risk and devises a strategy on how to help that person while protecting the college community, Sokolow said.
The intersection of mental health and the law is a complicated one, and the committees have been linked to lawsuits, Sokolow said.
Perhaps the most well-known is the suit against Pima Community College, which suspended Jared Lee Loughner after he was identified as a person of concern by an assessment committee. Loughner has been charged in the 2011 shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that left six people dead and 13 injured, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
In contrast, a school in Georgia and its former president were found to have improperly called for an investigation into a student's mental health, employment and grades because the student opposed plans to build a campus-parking garage.