Hindsight being what it is, how much blame do we have the right to impose on University of Colorado’s threat assessment team for not following through on alleged gunman James Holmes’s psychiatrist’s intuition that he might be dangerous? Holmes, who saw her six weeks before he stunned the world with shooting dozens of movie-goers at an Aurora showing of Batman, had been struggling due to an oral exam he failed, and ultimately decided to leave the university. At the time, his psychiatrist, Lynne Fenton, told colleagues she thought he could be a danger to others, and also informed the “behavioral evaluation threat assessment” team, which acts to identify students who could be a threat to others.
“Fenton made initial phone calls about engaging the BETA team,” in “the first ten days” of June, which “never came together” due to Holmes’s leaving the program. After Holmes left, the BETA team “had no control over him.”
Furthermore, Fenton didn’t explain what precisely concerned her, so there could be nothing to report to law enforcement. “It takes more than just statements,” explained one source. Holmes would have to have told Fenton “something specific,” before it could be reported.
Due to a gag order surrounding the case, news sources have not been able to learn when Fenton lost contact with Holmes or if he received further medical treatment afterwards.
“We did everything we think we could have done,” said Don Elliman, the university’s chancellor.
Barry Spodak, a threat assessment expert, certainly overstates his case when he claims dropping out of school is enough of a signal to justify imposing on the privacy and rights of a student. He said, “You know, I think that’s the signal that you should intensify your efforts, not walk away. Under those circumstances, most well-trained threat assessment teams would have gone into action.”
Nevertheless, seeing a psychiatrist while going through the emotional turmoil of deciding to leave a program is almost never a “call for action,” and it is only too easy to cite the unusual case where a student went ballistic when in fact students leave their university programs regularly at all universities, and such decisions are usually attended by some psychological frustration.