UVa Policy on Threat Assessment So Flawed It Seems Intentional

by James C. Sherlock

I have reported in this space on the actions and inactions of the Threat Assessment Team (TAT) and its members at the University of Virginia in the case of the man now in jail for three murders and two woundings.

I refer readers to my previous posts for my take on the facts in that case as I know them.

In this article, I will compare

  • the state law that mandates each Virginia college and university to have a Violence Prevention Committee and a Threat Assessment Team
  • with the University of Virginia’s policy that purports to carry out the mandates of that law.

The comparison is not flattering to the University. It reveals serious flaws in the design of the violence prevention and assessment protocols that preceded the actions of that specific TAT and may have contributed to its failure in this case.

The University policy so obviously fails to meet the requirements of the governing state law to which the policy itself refers that the only conclusion I can draw is that the flaws were intentional. Incompetence cannot explain this one.

There are too many senior management sets of eyes on University policy process, including lawyers. They must have thought they had a better way.

Clearly not.

I suggest University leadership this week write and sign a policy that complies with state law.

The law. See Code of Virginia § 23.1-805. Violence prevention committee; threat assessment team (the law).

The existence of HRM-028: Preventing and Addressing Threats or Acts of Violence (University policy) meets the first requirement of the law.

The second requirement of § 23.1-805 is for the establishment of a violence prevention committee and a “specific” threat assessment team.

…each violence prevention committee shall include representatives from student affairs, law enforcement, human resources, counseling services, residence life, and other constituencies as needed. Such committee shall also consult with legal counsel as needed.

The governing board of each public institution of higher education shall establish a threat assessment team that shall include members from law enforcement, mental health professionals, representatives of student affairs and human resources, and, if available, college or university counsel.

The requirements in the law are divided clearly and distinctly between the violence prevention committee and the TAT.

One of the issues with the implementation at UVa is that these two organizations  are combined. That violates the clear instructions of the law.

Results of the combined teams at UVa include:

  1. With the UVa policy, the work load on the members is higher than it should be;
  2. Policy and procedures development on the one hand and assessment and intervention on the other are and should remain two different domains with different participants as anticipated in the state law;
  3. UVa, by combining the functions, puts members on the Threat Assessment (and Intervention) Team (TAT) that should not be there as they are not part of the University’s security apparatus. Additional members will get information to which they are not entitled and their presence could slow action by the TAT.

The authorities and responsibilities of the TAT. UVa policy gives the TAT assessment authorities but specifically denies it the intervention responsibilities required in the law.  

It is notable in the law that:

Each violence prevention committee shall … (iv) establish policies and procedures for (a) the assessment of individuals whose behavior may present a threat, (b) appropriate means of intervention with such individuals, and (c) sufficient means of action, including interim suspension, referrals to community services boards or health care providers for evaluation or treatment, medical separation to resolve potential physical threats, and notification of family members or guardians, or both, unless such notification would prove harmful to the individual in question, consistent with state and federal law.

But the statement in the UVa policy does not appear to comply with the requirements of the law: 

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.

Such team shall implement the assessment, intervention and action policies set forth by the committee. [Emphasis added.]

I cannot square the requirements of the law that the TAT be an action team with the UVa policy that says it will not.

Membership of the TAT.  The descriptions in the state law of the minimum membership of the TAT in my view should be its maximum membership.

threat assessment team that shall include members from law enforcement, mental health professionals, representatives of student affairs and human resources, and, if available, college or university counsel.

University policy defines Violent and/or Threatening Behavior to include unsanctioned possession of firearms, weapons, or other dangerous items.

That policy, last updated in June of this year, further states:

Violence Prevention Committee and Threat Assessment Team (TAT):
The multidisciplinary TAT will consist of but is not limited to the following individuals and department representatives:

  • Associate Vice President of Safety and Security
  • Director of Threat Assessment
  • University Police Department
  • Student Affairs
  • Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
  • Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights
  • University HR/Employee Relations
  • Medical Center HR/Employee Relations
  • Faculty and Employee Assistance Program
  • Patient Safety/Risk Management
  • Faculty Representative
  • Office of University Counsel*

I have taken the liberty of striking through above the members of UVa’s combined organization that

  • are not required on the TAT by law;
  • are not entitled to law enforcement information; and
  • would have had no business in the evaluation of a student as a gun threat to the University community or the intervention and action required by law.

Relationships with outside law enforcement agencies. State law provides:

E. Each threat assessment team shall establish relationships or utilize existing relationships with local and state law enforcement agencies as well as mental health agencies to expedite assessment and intervention with individuals whose behavior may present a threat to safety. [Emphasis added.]

Current UVa policy ignores that topic entirely. I do not know why.  The student-run Judiciary Committee is neither a law enforcement agency nor a mental health agency.

UVa Policy Development. The UVa Policy Review Committee is chaired by Megan Lowe, Assistant Vice President and Chief of Staff to the University’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer (EVP/COO) Jennifer “J.J.” Wagner Davis. The other members are listed at the link.

The policy process is described here. The EVP/COO approves policies for the President.

Bottom line. As I have pointed out in previous articles, the law enforcement, University Counsel and student affairs members of the TAT have, when they walk out of any meeting, authority and responsibility to enforce laws and University policies.

But in writing any policy like this that is governed by a state law that says “shall” at every turn, university policy writers have one primary duty: comply with the requirements of the law, usually using the language of the law, before they make local additions.

There are never to be any subtractions from legal requirements.

I have a grandson in the 6th grade who could figure that out.

University policy in this area is so flawed that the leadership must have made a conscious decision to avoid the law, to which the policy itself refers in the first paragraph.

I have frankly never seen anything like this in 40 years of working for and with the government. I have encountered organizations that did not comply with the law, but never one that put in writing that they were not going to do so.

That does not excuse the inaction of the appropriate University officials that were charged in their full time jobs with University security. The policy requires investigation by the Attorney General’s special counsel as part of his or her larger review.

But the first order of business at the University is for the EVP/COO this week to direct and approve a policy that is compliant with state law.

Before something like this happens again.