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Aurora shootings: A threat-assessment system that might have worked?

August 2, 2012
by Dennis Grantham
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Psychiatrist contacted university's threat team about James Holmes six weeks before Aurora shootings

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.  

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Really?

Regardless of circumstance, one is considered innocent until proven guilty, both legalistically and journalistically. In some cases, this presumption is a lot to ask of those touched by a tragedy, so I understand your comment.

Thanks--
Dennis

I wonder what it really is that one wants in our world, fear, pain, traumatization, drugs, and violence, which is NAMI's best method, or love, hope, encouragement, forgiveness if needed, and the stopping of this kind of violence. I would hope that it would be the later, but I fear that without saying it that it may be the first, the team approach to villifying and profiling and stopping or suppressing freedom of speech and behaviors as long as a person hasn't committed a crime. You can't and shouldn't even entertain penalizing a crime until after it has occurred and you can verify and prove that what you are saying is so, look at the cases where people have jumped to conclusions ahead of time, they mostly were wrong. That is what humanity doesn't like is that there is no way to control every person, not a psychiatrist, not a doctor, not an attorney, legislators, business owners, not anyone, and we really can't know ahead of time and not even sometimes at the time, what they are getting ready to do or what they may have done, it makes people feel helpless, frustrated, disturbed, but that is just as true for you as what it is for me or anyone else in the world. The Drugs and Mentality that lead to these kinds of situations could be stopped, that would probably stop most of it other than the copy cat crimes.

I agree that it is unacceptable to pre-emptively villify and suppress people--especially the mentally ill--for things they might do. You're right about that.

The point I was trying to make in this article was that the University of Colorado had a behavioral evaluation team that did nearly all the right things. The psychiatrist treating the troubled student kept things confidential, as she should have, until something in his behavior became disturbing enough for her to alert the BETA team. Unfortunately, as noted, the student dropped out of school and the team lost its impetus to act.

Given the amount of ammunition and explosives later found in this individual's room--after the shootings--it seems clear that a "check-up" visit, perhaps suggested by the BETA team, that included crisis-trained police/mental health professionals might have been a followup step that was possible. And, if done promptly after the student dropped out, it may well have found evidence needed to justify, at least, a detention of the individual for treatment.

So, I don't think anyone should be singled out or villified in advance. But if there's a credible report--from a professional or a citizen--that someone appears to be very troubled, then why wouldn't there be a response--the same sort of response as for a domestic violence complaint, for example?

That's what I'm thinking. Thanks for sharing your views.

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Dennis Grantham

Dennis Grantham

@BH_dgrantham

www.behavioral.net