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Fresh information has come to light suggesting Professor Amy Bishop had a violent past. She is accused of fatally shooting three colleagues at the University of Alabama in Huntsville last week. Back in 2002, Bishop, a neurobiology professor, was charged with assaulting a stranger at a restaurant. It was just one of several brushes with the law, and many are now asking: Were key warning signs missed?
NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH: In retrospect, it's often easy to connect the dots. In 1986, Amy Bishop fatally shot her brother in what was officially ruled an accident. Seven years later, she was questioned about a mail bomb sent to a Harvard professor who was her supervisor at a Boston hospital. Neither of those incidents resulted in any charges. But we now know Bishop was charged for punching a stranger in the head at a pancake restaurant because the woman was using a child booster seat that Bishop wanted. Prosecutors recommended anger management courses as part of her probation.
That incident would have shown up on the deepest kind of criminal background checks, for example, for a child care position. But university spokesman Ray Garner says it didn't turn up on the background check the university ran when Bishop was hired or when they reran the check this week.
Mr. RAY GARNER (Spokesman, University of Alabama): Well, I think it would have gotten our attention. And I think we may have looked a little bit closer if we had been aware of it. Yeah. I don't think it's productive to look back, but I think it is probably more appropriate to look forward and see how we can do things better.
SMITH: Some say the university should and could have done a better job piecing together even the more subtle clues they did have. Since the shooting, plenty of people have been saying they were not surprised.
Ms. CAITLIN PHILLIPS: Honestly, like, when it first happened and they said that it was a faculty member, students started texting me, and they were, like, we bet it was Bishop.
SMITH: Nursing student Caitlin Phillips says she always felt something was off with Professor Bishop.
Ms. PHILLIPS: She would never make eye contact with you. Like, when I was in her office, she would just kind of glance around the room, look at the table, look at her computer, never once would she look at me while having a conversation with me. You know, there was something wrong with her. We saw this for a whole year.
SMITH: Eventually, Phillips and a group of students voiced their concerns in a letter to Associate Dean Daniel Rochowiak. Today, he is second-guessing himself. But he says students complain all the time and you can't round up everyone on campus who's a little bit off.
Professor DANIEL ROCHOWIAK (Associate Dean, College of Science, University of Alabama): We're all a little bit eccentric. But unless someone is violent or exhibits that kind of behavior, what could you possibly do?
Ms. MARISA RANDAZZO (Threat Assessment Consultant): Yeah, I know the difference between someone who might just be weird or eccentric and someone who poses a real risk or a threat.
SMITH: Marisa Randazzo used to be chief research psychologist for the Secret Service and is now a consultant on threat assessment. Even without knowing about Bishop's prior brushes with the law, Randazzo says a well-trained team on campus could've pieced together other clues that this professor, who was desperately fighting to keep her job, posed a potential threat.
Ms. RANDAZZO: In this case, her husband was aware of the fact that she had borrowed a handgun from a friend, was practicing at the firing range. And that, in and of itself, may be fine behavior, but that coupled with a long-standing grievance and failure to be able to address her problems other ways would, for me, raise concerns.
SMITH: The University of Alabama in Huntsville does not have a formal threat assessment team on campus. Many schools now do. Some states even mandate it. Randazzo says the teams encourage people to report even small concerns, but Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin says that can yield lots of false alarms.
Professor JACK LEVIN (Criminologist, Northeastern University): All of these so-called warning signs are also associated with many, maybe millions, of very good, decent people who wouldn't hurt anyone.
SMITH: Still, in the wake of last week's shooting, officials at the University of Alabama in Huntsville say setting up a formal threat assessment board is among the things they will now consider.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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