Colorado shooting: If a school is warned about a student, what must it do?
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.
(Page 2 of 2)
“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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The issue of whether a school therapist should divulge information about a patient is being raised at a time of increased pressures on college students. They are taking on large debt loads and are unsure of whether they will have a job when they leave school. For whatever reason, some of them snap.
Mr. Rosenberg says that at Macalester there is a risk group that meets every other week. “They report on whether there is a student on campus who seems at risk to himself or others or is in some sort of crisis situation,” he says. “If it seems to merit it, there is some intervention or reaching out from the group.”
He says it is very tricky for the school to force students to seek help. “Our first step is to set up counseling and bring them to a hospital,” he says. “If things get worse and they are not responding, we report it to the authorities.”
Would Macalester act if the individual dropped out of school?
“If the student completely leaves, we no longer follow that student,” he replies. “If they take a leave of absence with the potential to return, when they get back we would try to find out what they did to address their problem.”
One of the challenges, says Rosenberg, is that schools face lawsuits from every direction. If they don’t act to protect the student body they can be sued. If they act too precipitously, they can be sued for violating an individual’s right to privacy.
“For institutions, it’s a challenging legal line to walk,” he says.
Legal experts say it’s likely that the families of the victims of the Aurora shooting will sue the university. “They can sue the state for negligence for failing to prevent a criminal activity from occurring,” says Simons.
On Thursday, John Banzhaf, a professor of law at George Washington University School of Law, wrote that the victims and families, “many facing enormous medical costs, are likely to sue any entity which was involved, and which might have enough resources and/or insurance to pay for damages. Juries are likely to be sympathetic to the plaintiffs, especially in the light of the many damaging facts which have already come out, and any yet to be discovered.”
However, Mr. Pollack, the defense lawyer, thinks any lawsuit against the school will be very difficult to win. “Do they have a responsibility for every student after they have left the campus?” he asks.
He anticipates the university will try to settle with the families as quickly as possible. That’s what ultimately happened at Virginia Tech. “There was the option of getting compensation rather than suing,” he says. “The vast majority of the families opted to go for compensation versus lawsuits.”
IN PICTURES: Aurora, Colo. shooting aftermath