Violence Prevention and TATs: A Dissenting Opinion

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

There has been a lot of discussion on this blog  about violence prevention committees and threat assessment teams (TAT). There have been disagreements over whether the University of Virginia is in compliance with state law as well as lamentations about the lack of enforcement where it is considered that an institution is not in compliance with the requirements of state law.

First of all, I am not sure how the requirements would be enforced. The statutes provide no mechanism or provide authority to any agency to enforce them. The statutes themselves are fairly broad and, as has been shown in the discussions on this blog, there are various ways of interpreting those statutes. If push came to shove, I suppose one could go to court and seek a writ of mandamus against a college or university requiring it to rectify some omission or error in its policies regarding its  violence prevention committee or threat assessment team. I am not sure who would have standing to bring such a suit — faculty and students, probably; parents of students, maybe; alumni or interested citizens, probably not. Such a case would likely be expensive for anyone filing suit.

More importantly, I would advocate abolishing the requirement to establish a violence prevention committee and a threat assessment team altogether. It is an overly bureaucratic and inefficient way to deal with the potential for violence on campuses. In addition, the use of TATs can lead to abuse.

Jim Sherlock was on the right track when he proposed making the threat assessment team a law enforcement unit with a law-enforcement officer directing it. But why encumber law enforcement with a committee comprised of folks who do not have law enforcement experience?

It should be simple. If a person thinks that anyone poses a threat to an individual or to the campus generally, he should report it to the campus police. Law-enforcement officers are trained to investigate and assess persons who may pose a threat. If other departments of the university, such as the dean of students or mental health, need to be involved, the campus police chief can bring them in or refer the person to them. If, after investigation, the campus police chief concludes that the individual does constitute a genuine threat, he can report his findings to the appropriate campus authorities, who can take whatever action they deem necessary and appropriate.

If it is felt that there should be a statutory requirement that institutions of higher education adopt policies on violence prevention, Sec. 23.1-805 could be amended to retain the requirement for a policy, along with some prescription of what the policy should include, and eliminate the requirement for a violence prevention committee. The institutions can use whatever personnel they deem appropriate to develop the policy.

It was probably not intentional, but the current arrangement of two committees comprised of numerous people with overlapping responsibilities serves to make it difficult to hold anyone accountable.

The existence of a threat assessment team, made up of representatives from all areas of the institution, with the authority to investigate persons referred to it, including accessing their medical records and criminal histories, is subject to abuse.

For example, it could be used to harass or sanction people who are primarily annoyances. Some on this blog seem to think that was the case with the medical student who questioned the concept of microaggressions. People who advocate positions that are contrary to the majority position could find themselves targets of the TAT. After all, some members of the LGBTQ community have said they feel threatened by persons on campus who strongly support cases before the Supreme Court that would allow vendors to refuse to serve LGBTQ customers.

The TAT could also be a vehicle for people to use to exact revenge on other individuals. Picture this scenario: A student contacts member of the TAT and reports, “Joe Schmo confronted me yesterday and he was really angry that I have not paid him some money I owe. I thought he was going to hit me. I am pretty afraid of him because I heard that he has several guns in his off-campus apartment.” So, Joe Schmo, whose guns are legal, if he has any, and is the proper grievant (the boy owes him money) has his medical records passed around among the TAT members, perhaps has to be “interviewed” by the TAT and maybe gets  a visit from  the police, while being considered as a threat.

Just get rid of the TAT and let the police do their job.