Deadly Colorado Movie Theater Shooting Shows How Quickly Campus Organizations can Become Involved in Community Incidents

News agencies have been reporting that psychiatrist Dr. Lynne Fenton notified the University of Colorado threat assessment team that James Holmes might be dangerous and.  Dr. Fenton has stated that she notified the universities’ Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment Team prior to his dropping out of school’s neuroscience program.  Some media coverage has mentioned this in a manner that frames the information presented in a context of whether university officials acted appropriately or not.  

In mass casualty incidents such as major act of violence, it is not unusual for civil actions be filed against a wide array of entities who appear to have some connection to the incident.  It would not be unusual for the University of Colorado to be named in litigation along with other entities such as the theater where the shooting took place.

While fear of being litigated should not be the primary reason why safety actions are or are not taken, it should be routinely considered when safety issues of any kind are addressed.  A key point in this example is that threat assessment processes usually are and should be implemented in a manner to help identify potentially dangerous people and to help officials determine appropriate actions to prevent anyone from being harmed when possible.  While no prevention measures are absolutely reliable, threat assessment processes have often proven to be effective at preventing major acts of violence.

I am not in any way suggesting that the university has mishandled this situation as the information available to the general public at this time is not adequate to make such judgments.  However, it is clear that the actions of university officials will be carefully reviewed whether or not the university is litigated.  Like any organization, the University of Colorado would clearly not wish to be found to be at fault in any way in such a horrific incident. 

Naturally, no campus organization would wish to be viewed in such a light in such a horrific incident.  More importantly, no campus official would want to learn that the organization they lead has played any role whatsoever in the death or serious injury of victims in a mass casualty incident.  This should be a guiding thought when any campus safety measures are being considered.  It is always easier to look at an event after the fact and see what actions might have prevented tragedy, it is much harder to do so before tragedy strikes and many risks of different types must be addressed.

This aspect of the deadly shooting in Aurora demonstrates just how quickly the past actions of campus officials can be placed in the national spotlight and under intense scrutiny.  In the event of major investigations, fact-finding commissions and litigation, the scrutiny can be intensive.  Investigators, government officials, representatives of the media, expert witnesses and attorneys typically carefully review the occurrences leading up to such tragedies in detail in an effort to understand what factors are relevant. 

This case should remind campus officials that reasonable steps must not only be taken to prevent crisis situations, but that such efforts should be undertaken with a thoroughness level of care and with appropriate documentation to not only see that the right things are done, but that the organization can prove under intense scrutiny that they were done appropriately.

About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.