To Prevent A Tragedy, How Much Can A School Do?

A visitor lays flowers on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., on April 16, five years after a lone gunman killed 32 people. Many colleges formed threat assessment teams in the aftermath of the Virginia massacre.

hide captionA visitor lays flowers on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., on April 16, five years after a lone gunman killed 32 people. Many colleges formed threat assessment teams in the aftermath of the Virginia massacre.

Daniel Lin/AP

A Colorado judge on Thursday will consider whether to lift the gag order in the case of James Holmes, 24, who's accused of killing 12 and wounding dozens more at a movie theater last month.

NPR and other news organizations want access to case files, including a notebook that Holmes reportedly sent to a university psychiatrist before withdrawing from the school that may have described an attack.

The University of Colorado is now reviewing whether there was more they could have done to prevent the shooting. Officials are not commenting on reports that concerns about the suspect were brought to the university's threat assessment team.

And while Colorado looks at its policies, other schools around the nation are doing the same.

"An immediate reaction for us is, 'Could that happen here?' and, 'What changes should we consider making in order to fill the gap that maybe was apparent there?' " says John Zacker, head of the University of Maryland's Behavior Evaluation and Threat Assessment team.

Preventing Panicked Over-Reporting

But as schools scramble to draw lessons from Colorado and tighten their procedures, Zacker says, they're also trying to prevent a panicked reaction on their own campuses. The tendency after a tragedy, he says, is to over-report.

"You know, this can get very difficult," Zacker says. "We all watch those reports, thinking, 'Gee, I've got a fellow in my class that acts that way.' "

Suddenly, every little quirk can be seen as suspicious, he says. Also, faculty who would normally engage students who appear troubled become afraid to get involved, and instead, jump right to reporting, Zacker says.

"They would rather not be the person that confronts this individual, for fear that he might be the next one," he says. "And I can understand that."

Threat assessment teams are still relatively new on campuses. Most were set up to act as a kind of clearinghouse for concerns after the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy, in which student Seung-Hui Cho committed suicide after killing 32 people at the school.

But Gary Margolis, a consultant who helped devise federal standards for threat assessment at colleges and universities, says the quality of such teams varies.

"I don't want to imply that they're not where they need to be," Margolis says. "I think the reality is, it's an ongoing process."

No Magic Formula

The University of Colorado team was set up two years ago. Individuals were designated to field concerns and consult on an "as-needed" basis. But experts say the best teams meet regularly — threat or no threat — and include faculty, medical staff and police who are specifically trained in threat assessment.

There's no easy formula for identifying potential threats. In recent years, schools have clung to research showing that perpetrators may share certain characteristics, like being withdrawn, paranoid or unwilling to follow rules. But it's now become equally clear that those behaviors can't predict violence ahead of time.

"What people are looking for is this magic pill of, 'If this behavior, then this action,' " says Gene Deisinger, deputy police chief at Virginia Tech. "And we just not have seen that to be an effective strategy."

Deisinger, who directs Virginia Tech's threat management program, says threat assessment teams would do better to focus on the big picture and how students are interacting with others, rather than on specific traits.

"The trouble with a lot of those laundry lists of behaviors is that practitioners began to apply them as profiles or stereotypes of workplace avengers, campus offenders, etc.," Deisinger says. "And they have just not shown to be a very reliable methodology."

A 'Hot Industry'

It's easy to understand why schools may look for what might appear to be quick and easy answers in the wake of tragedies. But Marisa Randazzo, a consultant and former chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service, says many self-proclaimed experts are peddling models that are unproven at best.

"Campus threat assessment became a hot industry," Randazzo says. "And there are some folks out there who are very savvy marketers and have really played up on fears ... selling training that is not provided by qualified trainers."

Threat assessment teams also continue to be bogged down by questions of exactly what to report and when. Federal law now requires schools and therapists to report immediate threats to police. But what about someone who may fall just below that threshold, engaging in something an observer might describe just as "disturbing behavior"?

James Holmes, the former University of Colorado student accused in the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., by the University of Colorado. The university is reviewing whether more could have been done to prevent the shooting. i i

hide captionJames Holmes, the former University of Colorado student accused in the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., by the University of Colorado. The university is reviewing whether more could have been done to prevent the shooting.

University of Colorado/AP
James Holmes, the former University of Colorado student accused in the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., by the University of Colorado. The university is reviewing whether more could have been done to prevent the shooting.

James Holmes, the former University of Colorado student accused in the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., by the University of Colorado. The university is reviewing whether more could have been done to prevent the shooting.

University of Colorado/AP

Moreover, Gary Margolis says schools also struggle with how far they could — or should — go after a student of concern is expelled or withdraws, as in the case of the Colorado suspect.

Margolis says an administrator could certainly tell local authorities that they know of someone who's of concern to the institution. But, he continues, "I could easily see local law enforcement saying, 'We appreciate the information — we'll add it to the list of the other 3,000 people that are acting strangely today in our city or town. You know, if something happens we'll deal with it.' "

Further complicating matters: What about red flags that might appear off campus?

The University of Maryland's John Zacker points to the Colorado case, where Holmes was apparently denied entry to a shooting range after the owner was alarmed by his behavior.

"Geez, shouldn't you report that?" he asks. "Why should we place greater scrutiny on the college campus administrators than we do for this shooting range, who observed bizarre behavior?

"We get that scrutiny," Zacker says.

Ultimately, Zacker says, schools can only try their best to connect the dots they have. But, as they know all too well — that might not be enough.

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