To Prevent A Tragedy, How Much Can A School Do? Many are asking if University of Colorado officials should have known that former student James Holmes, the suspect in the Aurora, Colo., shootings, was potentially dangerous. Schools nationwide are evaluating how they respond to threats, and grappling with limits on what they can do to prevent such tragedies.
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To Prevent A Tragedy, How Much Can A School Do?

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now, to the case of James Holmes, the former graduate student accused of killing 12 people in a Colorado movie theater. Information that might reveal more about his state of mind has been placed under a gag order. But tomorrow, the judge in the case will consider a request to lift that order. News organizations, including NPR, want access to case files, including a notebook that Holmes reportedly sent to a university psychiatrist that may have described an attack.


In the meantime, the University of Colorado is reviewing whether it could have done more to prevent the shootings. There have been reports that concerns about James Holmes were sent to the university's threat assessment team. School officials are not commenting. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, other schools are taking a look at their policies.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It happens every time there's a tragedy.

JOHN ZACKER: That's an immediate reaction for us, is could that happen here?

SMITH: John Zacker, head of the University of Maryland's Behavior Evaluation and Threat Assessment team, says schools everywhere are scrambling to draw lessons from Colorado and tighten procedures, while also trying to prevent a panicked reaction.

ZACKER: You know, this can get very difficult. We all watch those reports, thinking, gee, I've got a fellow in my class that acts that way.

SMITH: After a tragedy, Zacker says the tendency is to over-report and every little quirk can be seen as suspicious. And he says faculty who'd normally engage students who appear troubled become afraid to get involved and instead, jump right to reporting.

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

SMITH: Threat assessment teams are still relatively new on campuses. Most were set up after the Virginia Tech shootings to act as a kind of clearinghouse for concerns.

But Gary Margolis, a consultant who helped devise federal standards, says their quality varies.

GARY MARGOLIS: I don't want to imply that they're not where they need to be. I think the reality is it's an ongoing process.

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

There's no easy formula. While research shows perpetrators may share certain characteristics, like being withdrawn or paranoid or unwilling to follow rules, it's become equally clear that those things can't predict violence ahead of time.

DR. GENE DEISINGER: What people are looking for is this magic pill of, if this behavior, then this action. And we just not have seen that to be an effective strategy.

SMITH: Dr. Gene Deisinger 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.

DEISINGER: And the trouble with a lot of those laundry lists of behaviors is that practitioners began to apply those as profiles or stereotypes of workplace avengers, campus offenders, et cetera. And they just have not shown to be a very reliable methodology.

SMITH: 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 something just below that threshold, that's just disturbing behavior?

Also, Gary Margolis says schools 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: You tell the local police that, heads up, we know of person who's of concern to the institution, you know, 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. And, you know, if something happens we'll deal with it.

SMITH: And what about red flags that might appear off-campus? The University of Maryland's John Zacker points to the Colorado case where the alleged killer was apparently denied entry to a shooting range after the owner was alarmed by his behavior.

ZACKER: Gee, shouldn't you report that? And why should we place greater scrutiny on the college campus administrators than we do for this shooting range who observed bizarre behavior and did no one say anything?

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

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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