Threat Assessment Done Right — Virginia Tech

by James C. Sherlock

Yesterday I harshly critiqued the structure, authorities and actions of the University of Virginia Threat Assessment Team.

Today, in stark contrast, I offer Virginia Tech. Tech has complied with state law by simply doing what the law requires, and done it thoughtfully.

As a result, Tech has established a far more professional approach and an unbroken case flow from threat assessment to intervention to sanctioning.

Which some commenters have insisted was impossible at Virginia.

Where three young men are dead.

The description by Virginia Tech of its TAT:

Campus violence prevention depends on the referrals of the community – students, employees, and visitors–to keep Virginia Tech a safe and enriching campus for all who live, study, and work here.

Virginia Tech has established a multi-disciplinary Threat Assessment Team (in adherence to Virginia Code 23.1-805) comprised of representatives from student affairs, law enforcement, human resources, counseling services, and residence life. The team meets on a regular basis to evaluate threat referrals, develop case management plans and, if necessary, intervene in a manner appropriate to the situation.

The mission of the team is to determine if an individual poses, or may reasonably pose, a threat of violence to self, others, or the Virginia Tech community and to intervene to avert the threat and maintain the safety of the situation. The team responds to behaviors exhibited by students, employees, visitors, and non-affiliated persons prior to a critical incident in an attempt to prevent violence so that the Virginia Tech campus remains a safe and secure working and learning environment. [Emphasis added].

Reporting. At Tech,

Anyone with a concern can notify the Threat Assessment Team by contacting the Virginia Tech Police Department at 540-382-4343.

At UVa, the Just Report It system is an online system for reporting issues including preventing and addressing threats or acts of violence except those that qualify for 911 reporting.

Just Report It messages are directed to the University’s Title IX Coordinator or Compliance Director of the Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights (EOCR), not the police.

That is how the UVa TAT was initially notified of the issue that got it to assess the eventual accused shooter. And how the police learned of it.

Membership. The Virginia Tech Violence Prevention Committee is chaired by the Virginia Tech Chief of Police. While it shares some members, it is a program development and training organization entirely separate from the Threat Assessment Team.

UVa, as reported, combines the Violence Prevention Committee and the TAT. UVa policy does not designate a chairperson, but that can be assumed to be the intent in his role as Associate Vice President of Safety and Security.

The Tech TAT is not only separate, but its membership is far more appropriate than that of UVa.

In the most important example, Tech has a police investigator assigned to the TAT.

Lt. Kendrah Cline serves as detective lieutenant with the Virginia Tech Police Department and primary case agent for most threat assessment cases. As Investigations Lieutenant and primary case agent, she communicates with reporting parties, departmental representatives, faculty members, victims, subjects, and relevant offices across campus. This position is important to the team because it allows for centralized fact gathering and consistent communication with members of the Virginia Tech community.

Case management. The Virginia Tech TAT uses the Police Department’s case management system for investigations. Cases are not managed on a first-come, first served basis. All cases are triaged and the most imminent cases are managed first. All cases, regardless of their immediacy, are reviewed and managed in the manner most appropriate for the situation.

Records that are created as part of a Threat Assessment Team inquiry are maintained by the Virginia Tech Police Department and protected as investigative records.

Warning signs. At Tech, threat assessment is designed to be a preventative process used to identify warning signs and intervene before someone commits a crime.

At Tech, persons reporting a threat can contact the Threat Assessment Team coordinator at (540) 231-7194 to update the reported information.

Tech provides examples of warning signs to look out for. They include:

  • Losses (such as status);
  • Perceived rejection or injustice;
  • Ostracized by others.

Add those characteristics, reportedly present in the accused, to a gun possession report and we confidently expect Tech would have taken action to deal with the Virginia accused shooter, including finding his criminal record, seeing his gun purchases, inspecting his dorm room and arresting him.

In other words, it is more than reasonable to think Lt. Cline would have done her job.

Bottom line. Commenters on yesterday’s article insisted — stamped their feet really — that Virginia’s TAT had done nothing wrong. That the UVa process was logical, sound, efficient and even, by stressing the English language to its limits, compliant with state law.

Yet we see that Virginia Tech does this right. Thoughtfully. Professionally. In actual compliance.

Virginia does not. Look at the Virginia HRM-028: Preventing and Addressing Threats or Acts of Violence. It is a hot mess. It claims early that TAT will:

(intervene) with individuals whose behavior poses a threat to the safety of the University community

But says later:

The TAT does not serve as a disciplinary body; however, referrals will be made to the appropriate disciplinary authority regarding violent or threatening behavior per University policy.

We are dying to know who inserted that caveat and when. Intervention stops violence from occurring. Discipline sanctions. It is all one process. One case.

The UVa TAT wound up doing neither. The UVa police and the Albemarle County CA and courts could have done both. But UVa assigns no police investigator to the TAT.

Tech is compliant with state law. It separates the Violence Prevention Committee and the TAT, and makes the TAT an action organization with its own senior police investigator.

The University of Virginia’s police chief reported that

Office of Student Affairs unsuccessfully attempted to speak to (the accused shooter).

Office of Student Affairs. On a gun-related threat. Who refused to cooperate. Whose dorm room was not searched. And who was left to roam the Grounds.

And get on that bus.