Colorado Shooting: If a School Is Warned about a Student, What Must It Do?

By Scherer, Ron | The Christian Science Monitor, August 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Colorado Shooting: If a School Is Warned about a Student, What Must It Do?


Scherer, Ron, The Christian Science Monitor


Members of a University of Colorado threat assessment team reportedly were told about James Holmes, the Colorado shooting suspect, just before he quit school, raising questions about the team's obligations.

In the wake of the tragic 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, where 32 students were killed, universities around the country set up committees to assess whether a student represented a threat to the campus community.

One of those schools was the University of Colorado, Denver, which established a Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment (BETA) group in 2010.

On Thursday, the BETA group found itself under the microscope after news reports saying that one its members, a psychiatrist and university professor, had phoned some of the group to discuss one of her patients, a graduate student named James Holmes.

Mr. Holmes, who subsequently withdrew from the medical school's PhD program in neuroscience, is the alleged gunman in the Aurora movie theater shooting, in which 12 people were killed and 58 wounded on July 20.

Did the BETA group have a responsibility to alert the police that there was a potentially dangerous student?

Lawyers say the answer is maybe, maybe not.

On one side of the argument are those who say the main responsibility of the university is to protect its students, faculty, and administrators. Since Holmes dropped out of the university before the BETA group could meet, the argument goes, they had very little responsibility for him.

"The university has a legal duty to protect its students, not the world at large," says Barry Pollack, a defense lawyer and partner in the Washington law firm of Miller & Chevalier. "If they get information about someone who is not a student, it is not in their purview to do anything about it."

On the other side are those who say that if Holmes made threats while he was still a student, the BETA group had a responsibility to act. A reasonable person would have called the police, they argue.

"If a student says they are going to kill someone on Monday but drops out of school on Tuesday, there is a duty to take reasonable steps," says Kenneth Simons, a professor of law at Boston University School of Law.

The key issue, says Professor Simons, is what Holmes may have actually said in his session with the school psychiatrist, identified by Holmes' defense team as Dr. Lynne Fenton, director of the school's Mental Health Service. Did he specifically say he was going to a theater or mall to kill people?

At this point no one knows what took place between Holmes and Dr. Fenton. In addition, the judge in the case has invoked a gag order, forbidding the police and other people involved with the case saying anything about it. More information is likely to come out at Holmes' trial and perhaps during the discovery process if there are civil lawsuits.

However, in the state of Colorado, doctors are required to notify the police if there is a specific threat to an individual.

"If he [Holmes] said, 'I am going to go to Aurora and go to a movie theater and kill people,' there are steps such as going to the police or taking steps to commit him," says Simons. …

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