Two months after the fatal shooting at the University of Virginia, the General Assembly is reviewing bills that would direct how college threat assessment teams respond when they discover a threatening person on campus.
When a college realizes an “articulable and significant” threat, the school would have to obtain available criminal and health history and notify police and the local prosecutor, the measures state.
Versions of this bill have been introduced in the House of Delegates and the Senate, and a Senate subcommittee on Monday voted in favor of Senate 910, sponsored by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg. As authorities look back on the UVa shooting and ask what could have been done better, this bill attempts to answer that, Newman said.
People are also reading…
A UVa student, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., was charged with killing three student-athletes and injuring two others in November. The university’s threat assessment team was aware Jones talked about having a gun, but it’s unclear what specific steps the threat assessment team took next.
It’s also unclear if this measure would apply to Jones’ case, given the bill applies to threats that are articulable.
After the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the state directed colleges to form threat assessment teams, which are designed to bring together various university departments and gather information about a person’s behavior, criminal history and mental health history.
An investigation determined that shooter Seung-Hui Cho had aroused suspicion from faculty and staff, had been temporarily detained for possible mental illness and had been reported to police for bothering female students. But staffers never spoke to one another, fearing they would violate student privacy laws. No one saw the full picture until it was too late.
Currently, the law allows threat assessment teams to gather available criminal and health information about a person. The new bill would require threat assessment teams to gather that information when the threat is articulable and significant.
Finding health records can be difficult, said Gene Deisinger, a former director of threat management at Virginia Tech, because teams may not know where to look if the student does not divulge his or her mental health history. Record holders aren’t always required to release them.
Threat teams have to be careful not to violate a person’s privacy when it isn’t necessary, Deisinger said in an interview.
The bill also would direct threat teams to notify campus law enforcement, local police and police from where the individual resides. Local police officers are already on threat assessment teams and typically collect criminal history on individuals, Deisinger added.
The bill would direct the state to form a task force to determine best practices and to develop model policies and procedures for all threat assessment teams at public colleges. It would require a minimum amount of yearly training by threat assessment team members.
It’s unclear if Jones’ actions would be considered articulable. Another student told UVa authorities that Jones discussed having a gun. UVa tried to speak to Jones, but he did not cooperate. In the course of its investigation, UVa learned Jones had been found guilty of illegally concealing a weapon, something he did not disclose to the school.
Jones never made threatening comments, UVa Police Chief Tim Longo said in November.
The majority of cases Deisinger dealt with at Virginia Tech were not articulable and significant, he said.
UVa has not explained in detail what actions its threat assessment team took, citing the investigation announced by Attorney General Jason Miyares.
Lori Haas, whose daughter survived the Virginia Tech massacre and who advocates for ending gun violence, said she supports the bill. She also asked if threat assessment teams could notify the individual’s family. Sometimes, schools discover a student’s troubling behavior and the family never knows, she said.
Universities should not have to notify families of every little infraction, she said. But when the level of concern rises such that threat assessment teams are scrutinizing the person, it would help families to know.
Newman, the bill’s sponsor, said he would investigate the question.