UVa's Threat Assessment Policy Is So Flawed It Seems Intentional

UVa’s Threat Assessment Policy Is 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 currently in prison for three murders and two wounds.

I refer readers to my previous articles for my perspective on the facts of this case as I know them.

In this article, I will compare

  • state law that requires every college and university in Virginia to have a violence prevention committee and threat assessment team
  • with the policy of the University of Virginia which purports to carry out the mandates of this law.

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

The University Politics therefore clearly does not meet the requirements of the regulations in force State Law to which the policy itself refers that the only conclusion I can draw is that the defects were intentional. Incompetence cannot explain this one.

There are too many senior management eyes on the university political process, including lawyers. They must have thought they had a better way.

Clearly not.

I suggest to the University leadership this week to write and sign a policy consistent with state law.

The law. See Virginia Code § 23.1-805. Violence Prevention Committee; threat assessment team. (the law)

The existence of HRM-028: The prevention and treatment of threats or acts of violence (University policy) first requirement of the law.

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

…each violence prevention committee will include representatives from Student Affairs, Law Enforcement, Human Resources, Counseling Services, Residence Life, and other constituencies as required. This committee will also consult with legal counsel as needed.

The board of directors of each public institution of higher education establishes a specific threat assessment team which will include members of law enforcement, mental health professionals, student affairs and human resources representatives, and, if applicable, a college or university attorney.

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

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

Combined UVa team results include:

  1. With the UVa policy, the members’ workload is higher than it should be;
  2. Policy and procedure development on the one hand and assessment and response on the other are and should remain two different areas with different actors as provided by state law;
  3. UVa, by combining functions, puts members on threat assessment (and Intervention) Team (TAT) who shouldn’t be there as they are not part of the University’s security apparatus. Additional members will obtain information to which they are not entitled and their presence could slow down the action of the TAT.

The powers and responsibilities of the TAT. The UVa policy gives the TAT evaluation powers, but more specifically denies it the intervention responsibilities required by law.

It should be noted 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 measures. suspension, referrals to community service 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 a such notification will not prove harmful to the individual in question, in accordance with state and federal law.

But the statement in 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 for violent or threatening behavior in accordance with University policy.

This team should implement the assessment, interventions and actions policies defined by the committee. [Emphasis added.]

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

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

threat assessment team which will include members of law enforcement, mental health professionals, student affairs and human resources representatives and, if applicable, a college or university attorney.

University Politics defines violent and/or threatening behavior as including the unauthorized possession of firearms, weapons or other dangerous objects.

This policy, last updated in June of this year, States:

Violence Prevention Committee and Threat Assessment Team (EAT):
The multidisciplinary EAT will be composed of, but not limited to, the following individuals and departmental representatives:

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

I have taken the liberty of crossing out above the members of the UVa combined organization who

  • are not required on the TAT by law;
  • are not entitled to information about law enforcement; and
  • would have had no reason to assess a student as an armed threat to the University community or the intervention and action required by law.

Relations with external law enforcement agencies. State law provides:

E. Each threat assessment team should establish relationships or use existing relationships with local and state law enforcement agencies as well as mental health agencies to expedite the assessment and intervention with individuals whose behavior may pose a threat to security. [Emphasis added.]

Current UVa Policy completely ignore this topic. I do not know why.

Development of the UVa policy. 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 “JJ” Wagner Davis. The other members are listed on the link.

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

Bottom line. As I have pointed out in previous articles, law enforcement, the university council, and TAT student affairs members have, when leaving a meeting, the authority and responsibility to enforce laws and university policies.

But in writing a policy like this that’s governed by state law that says “shall” at all times, university policy writers have one primary duty: to comply with the requirements of the law, typically using the language of the law, before making local additions.

There are never be any evasion of legal requirements.

I have a grandson in 6th grade who could understand that.

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

Frankly, I have never seen anything like it in 40 years of working for and with government. I’ve met organizations that haven’t complied with the law, but never one that put in writing that they weren’t going to.

This does not excuse the inaction of appropriate University officials who have been tasked in their full-time jobs with University security. But the policy requires an investigation by the attorney general’s special counsel as part of its broader review.

But the first order of business at the University is for the EVP/COO this week to lead and approve policy consistent with state law.

Before something like this happens again.

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