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].


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.

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42 responses to “Threat Assessment Done Right — Virginia Tech”

  1. The UVA ‘system’ did not fail… individual PEOPLE granted with the power and responsibility and accountability to keep the campus and its students safe FAILED. Those people must be identified and held accountable for allowing this violent individual to live on campus, attend classes, and kill his classmates. Those people must be fired, if not prosecuted….. we’ll see…. of course, it must all be done with equity in mind…..

    1. William O'Keefe Avatar
      William O’Keefe

      The system affects how people act and see their responsibilities. I agree that in the end people at Virginia failed but the question is why? The Tech system on the surface appears far better organized for threat assessment and response. Given the experience that Tech has had with violence, I have to wonder why UVA didn’t benchmark off of it.

      1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        So do many of us. But in truth, they could have benchmarked off of the state law.

    2. At least a dozen highly educated individuals presumably earning at least six figures are all really bad at their jobs? That’s what you’re suggesting?

      And the person they answer to had no way of knowing until now?

      1. YES. Those people’s job is to keep students safe. Three dead and two wounded is a failure. Failure requires punishment when people’s lives are lost. If you think this was a success, please explain how and why. Or maybe you think a “I’m sorry” is okay? Salary does not guarantee competence.

        1. That’s not my point. Quite the opposite.

          I’ve been stressing the complete failure of UVA and the need for accountability for days. Without evidence that individual members of the TAT were shouting from the rooftops with complaints, I would fire them all.

          My point is that a failure of this magnitude involving this many individuals, speaks to a systemic problem. How else would you explain their failure to take appropriate action to accomplish what should be a clear objective?

          “Incidents of aberrant, dangerous, or
          threatening behavior must be documented and reported immediately to a college’s threat assessment group, and must be acted upon in a prompt and effective manner to protect the safety of the campus community.

          The above is one of the recommendations that resulted from an analysis of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.

          1. DJRippert Avatar

            The systemic problem is the arrogance of the leadership team at UVa.

      2. DJRippert Avatar

        At least a dozen highly educated, empty suited, arrogant buffoons who hate the police decided to play law enforcement. They failed.

        Now, three young men are dead.

  2. Bill O’K says it right in my view. To generalize from this experience at UVa and other posts here about reworking the past and addressing the present with liberal doses of wokeness, there sure does seems to be a pattern of press releases and policy statements and even regulations that slather issue after issue with heaps of murky collaborative problem solving and bureaucratic window dressing (so as to be all things to all people?), but absent clarity and decisiveness. Is this peculiar to UVa, or simply the way of all educational institutions today that haven’t, like VT, faced reality up close already?

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Until it doesn’t.

  4. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “Commenters on yesterday’s article insisted – stamped their feet really – that Virginia’s TAT had done nothing wrong.”

    None that I read said that…

    “That the UVa process was logical, sound, efficient…”

    Again, I did not read any comments that said that.

    “…and even, by stressing the English language to its limits, compliant with state law.”

    It looks as if they were (at a minimum it remains to be seen officially) by straight forward reading of the law… no stress was involved. Really, the main argument I saw (and made) is that you had no basis for declaring that UVA definitively did not comply with state law. So now you double down… the hubris of Sherlock… alas…

    1. Irie Casa Avatar

      Total fail in argument. No facts so attack the person. Fail.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        That’s hubris for ya.

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Are there any good examples of a TAT at any college in this state that performed as designed and stopped the bad guys? I did find one example but it is up in Alaska.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Alaska TAT… Tie up the suspect. If the grizzly unties him, he’s not a threat.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        I drove from Warrenton to Alaska and back. I wanted to visit Juneau. It was too hard to get to. So far removed from the rest of the state.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          I’d love to see Alaska, but there’s two things I cannot abide, bitter cold and mosquitoes. Hear tell the window is small.

          Spousal unit wants to take the Bannf train, preferably in winter. Bannf? Or Bamf, eh?

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      want to point out also that it appears in the Va Code that K12 is supposed to have a similar TAT capability.

    3. Are there any good examples of a TAT at any college in this state that performed as designed and stopped the bad guys?

      That would be good to know. However, it is very difficult to prove that a particular policy or certain actions prevented something bad from happening, because the something bad that was prevented never occurred, and is therefore impossible to define.

      It’s a classic case of trying to prove a negative.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        I thought about that too Mr. Wayne. Reminds me of that weirdo Tom Cruise movie Minority Report.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” 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.”

    This is why I asked in prior comments as to whether the TAT had any STAFF and if it did not, wouldn’t the UVA police be the obvious member of the TAT to deal with specific and clear threats.

    Is that all it would take for the critics to agree that UVA is doing it “right”? i.e. Put on paper that UVA also has ….
    ” a police investigator assigned to the TAT.

    [who] serves as detective lieutenant with the UVA Police Department and primary case agent for most threat assessment cases.”

    what else?

    Has Va Tech had actual “intervention” success stories that would compare and contrast to UVA’s “failure”?

    If true, then UVA is going to be hard-pressed to explain how they did different from tech and it did result in a “fail”.

    This is a learning…evolving process not unlike the rethinking going on right now on how LEO should respond to an active shooter in a school when there are multiple LEO agencies involved.

    1. VaPragamtist Avatar

      “Has Va Tech had actual “intervention” success stories that would compare and contrast to UVA’s “failure”?”

      It’s hard to say. Success in threat assessment means a situation is resolved in the best way possible for all parties. FERPA comes into play as well. Only when an issue becomes criminal does threat assessment become public.

      VT has a list of about 200 individuals banned from campus, some of which may have come from the threat assessment process.

      The most public case of recent memory comes from 2018, but debate still persists: did he have criminal intent, or did threat assessment go too far?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        thanks. stop students with guns?

  7. Tech, and the GA, took the lesson from the string of institutional failures that resulted in Cho. They should be congratulated as well as emulated by other Virginia educational institutions.

    UVa has clearly failed to learn from Tech’s example. Virginia must insist that UVa learn from this tragedy and reform its practices in line with with the GAs legislation and Tech’s example to guide it.

    UVa’s decision to combine the policy and operations groups (Violence Prevention Committee and Threat Assessment Team respectively)appears to be organizational misfeasance. It violates both the GA’s legislative intent and usual business practices that separate policy (board of directors) and operations (organization staff). The results are predictably bad, and in this case fatal.

    Who set up the dysfunction at UVa and why?

    1. VaPragamtist Avatar

      To get to the bottom of your question, your best bet is to ask Dewey Cornell. He’s a UVA faculty member whose research focuses, in part, on threat assessment. He helped establish state policy and guidelines and, along with Gene Deisigner, is considered an expert in the field.

      If the system failed, then my guess is either he’s partly responsible for setting up a failed system; or he knows the internal politics that allowed his advice to be ignored.

      1. Thank you.

        From his bio:
        “A major emphasis in his work is the elimination of racial inequities in school discipline and educational outcomes.”

        Could DIE have had anything to do with UVa’s failure to develop an effective violence and threat structure as legislated by the GA or to engage effectively with Jones?

        “He is currently directing studies of school climate and school threat assessment with funding from the U. S. Department of Justice.”

        It will be interesting to see if he has objected strenuously to UVa’s conflation of the Violence Prevention Committee and the Threat Assessment Team that is at variance with both the GA’s legislation and usual business practices. That combined structure proved profoundly and horrifyingly ineffective in dealing with Jones and preventing the tragedy.

        From a Dick H-S comment here:

        “The language of Sec. 23.1-805… Here is the language:

        D. The governing board of each public
        institution of higher education shall establish a threat assessment team that includes members from law enforcement, mental health professionals, representatives of student affairs and human resources, and, if available, college or university counsel. Each threat assessment
        shall implement the assessment, intervention, and action policies set forth by the violence prevention committee pursuant to subsection C.”

      2. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive


        Couldn’t pass it up. Was gonna go with Jennifer Doudna, but went for the broader audience and with the synonym.

    2. In my view, the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech was an experience shared by all higher education in Virginia, and every institution should have committed itself to reform with the same vigor as VT.

      I was working at a institution of higher education in Virginia at the time. It seems almost everyone knew someone who was on campus at VT that day.

      UVA is now relearning what was already learned in 2007. That’s inexcusable. “Captain Hindsight” may have been applicable for the 2007 shooting, but not this one.

      You asked: “Who set up the dysfunction at UVa and why?”

      Code of Virginia (emphasis mine)

      B. The governing board of each public institution of higher education shall determine a violence prevention committee structure on campus composed of individuals charged with education on and prevention of violence on campus.

      D. The governing board of each public institution of higher education shall establish a threat assessment team that includes …

      I would include the UVA Board of Visitors amoung those who should be called to account.

      1. Agree. Tech seems to have taken the lesson to heart, after all they were up close and personal with Cho and fully experienced the institutional failures, both theirs and others, Cho got Tech’s attention,

        UVa on the other hand… Conflating the policy making Violence Prevention Committee and the operating Threat Assessment Team appears contrary to both the legislative intent and usual business practices. The result was tragically ineffective. I’ve commented extensively on that in prior recent BR posts so I won’t repeat it here.

        Your conclusion that UVa’s BOV shares the failure with the UVa’s Administration makes sense. You can delegate authority to act, but not responsibility for (in)actions.

        As with Cho I expect we will find Jones has acute and severe mental illness. UVa had the indicators and specific evidence and yet did nothing. It is not “imagine our surprise” or “no one could have guessed”. It is UVa set up an institutional morass that neither prevented violence or assessed and mitigated threat.

  8. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Threat assessment gone wrong…

    Does it count if I create and then delete my account?

  9. DJRippert Avatar

    “But UVa assigns no police investigator to the TAT.”

    Ahhh … that old UVa combination of arrogance and incompetence. It’s been that way since Frank Hereford left.

  10. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    As interventions go, for better or worse, TSA can show photographs of confiscated weapons, bombs, water bottles, and fingernail clippers. It’s constantly tested and has a success/failure record.

    For VT’s TAT to be a “success” compared to UVa, it would have to have been tested and produced positive results, otherwise it’s “in theory”. Untested absence of a failure is not proof of a successful system.

    1. Absence of successful violence post Cho is not evidence of the absence of success in combating threats.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Not if they haven’t actually stopped another. Background checks for security clearances never actually found a spy.

        1. Surely you don’t really believe that background checks have never prevented threats from entering sensitive areas or uncovered them just because, unlike the FBI, they have not set up phony threats by bozos and busted them.

          Your alma mater seems to have paid attention to the GA (and common sense/business practice) and set up a structure with both a Violence Protection Committee and a Threat Assessment Team. UVa mushed them together and got the benefits of neither and the downsides of both.

          We don’t have to embrace Sherlock to understand that UVa screwed up badly.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            They’ve never caught a spy. They have denied or revoked clearances from those who have traits shared with those who have compromised classified information and data.

          2. As far as you are aware.

            Years ago NSA was tipped off to at least one spy that way. As I recall he was a Sgt with fancy cars, boats and free spending well beyond his means (see The Codebreakers – David Kahn). More recently Aldrich Ames cover story was that the money was an inheritance from his South American wife’s family.

            I certainly remember the Naval Investigative Service periodically (every 5? years for clearance renewals) coming around the neighborhood asking neighbors if there was anything out of the ordinary going on or if there seemed to be a surplus of money. That was not the only thing NIS was checking, but it was intentionally visible.

            Dunno why you would be fixated on questioning the value of prevention efforts. They certainly are not foolproof, but if decently executed they add value over doing nothing.

          3. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            This thread, and EVERYONE of Sherman’s opinion have neglected the foolproof part, which is why we’re here. The notion that VT’s is better than UVa’s is mere conjecture since NEITHER has caught a bad guy.

          4. There is a difference. UVa actively abdicated dealing with a bad guy who subsequently killed people. We have far too much evidence that UVa’s approach did not work.

            Sherlock got the ball rolling. That may not have been much more than his usual jumping to conclusions, but he apparently had prior experience with UVa’s TAT. That led to separately figuring out (thank you Dick H-S) that UVa actively disregarded both the GA’s legislated educational safety structure (two groups, one policy, one action) that has worked in other settings and that is also how business is usually conducted.

            It would also not be a surprise to find that “equity” had a role to play in not dealing substantively with Jones. We’re not there yet. Hopefully the AG commission will shed some light on what happened and why.

      2. My son attends VT and I know for a fact that at least one person was either suspended or expelled for having a firearm on campus. That person later committed a felony in another state. It turned out to be a case of severe mental illness.

        To be fair, we don’t know that UVA was ineffective in all similar cases. We only know that they were in this case. We need to know why.

        For privacy reasons, the public will probably never have direct access to all the relevant information necessary to assess what went wrong at UVA. One hopes, however, that the special council report will provide that information, at least in summary form without names or details that would compromise the privacy of other individuals and students.

  11. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    UVA is not alone in its Red Flag law failure. Colorado Springs failed too.

    Perhaps, we need to start giving out an Uvalde Incompetence Award to the biggest failures to use the laws that politicians argued are crucial to public safety.

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