On Wednesday, KGMH-TV (Denver) reporters quoted unnamed sources regarding an effort by Lynne Fenton, M.D., a psychiatrist and Medical Director of the University of Colorado's Student Mental Health Center, to contact fellow members of the University's Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment (BETA) team in early June, six weeks before James Holmes--a PhD student studying neurology at the University's Anschutz Medical Campus--allegedly shot and killed 12 people and wounded 58 in a movie theater in nearby Aurora.
According to the report, Fenton, who is also an assistant professor in the UC medical school's department of psychiatry, contacted a number of BETA team members to express her concerns about Holmes, whom she reportedly treated earlier in the year. However, only days later, on June 10, Holmes dropped out of the UC graduate program--and presumably out of the realm of the university's responsibilities--and the matter did not proceed further.
To learn a bit more, I explored the University's website--where processes for handling student mental health concerns are detailed and all students have access to the phone numbers of key BETA team members along with electronic forms to detail their concerns--even about fellow students. The structure of the University's website looked to me like the type of system called for in our special "After Tucson" issue (March/April 2011).
This article by attorney Carolyn Reinach Wolf, Misunderstandings slow behavioral health intervention on campus, offers expert advice about the legal responsibilities and liabilities that college and university leaders face when dealing with student mental health concerns, then outlines how colleges can set up behavioral health intervention teams, teams much like the University of Colorado's BETA team.
Of course, there's a big difference between having a BETA team that can identify an individual who exhibits signs of unstable or threatening behavior and knowing that "this is the one" that would follow through on such behavior. But knowing the future isn't a BETA team's job--their job is to investigate concerns, identify threats, and when needed, get appropriate resources involved.
In that sense, it appears that the University of Colorado was tantalizingly close to having a threat assessment system that actually worked. Whether the actions of such a group (had it actually met to discuss Holmes) could have had an impact on future events is another matter. Even, for example, had the BETA team met, identified this threat and escalated their concerns in a way that brought in additional family, mental health, or law enforcement resources, there's no assurance that the outcome would have changed. But, they might have given the others a chance to observe, to find, or to discover something that could have changed it. In that respect, I can only think that they were so, so close to doing the right thing.
In the March 2011 story I cited above, attorney Wolf states that college and university officials must "err on the side of the student's best interests" and "take the risk of getting involved." Sadly, the university is involved now and actions its BETA team "almost" took are counting against it, not for it, in the court of public opinion.