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Colorado shooting: If a school is warned about a student, what must it do?

Members of a University of Colorado threat assessment team reportedly were told about James Holmes, the Colorado shooting suspect, just before he quit school, raising questions about the team's obligations.

A group of people hold hands and pray at a memorial across from the movie theater, Monday, July 30, in Aurora, Colorado.

Alex Brandon/AP

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In the wake of the tragic 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, where 32 students were killed, universities around the country set up committees to assess whether a student represented a threat to the campus community.

One of those schools was the University of Colorado, Denver, which established a Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment (BETA) group in 2010.

On Thursday, the BETA group found itself under the microscope after news reports saying that one its members, a psychiatrist and university professor, had phoned some of the group to discuss one of her patients, a graduate student named James Holmes.

Mr. Holmes, who subsequently withdrew from the medical school’s PhD program in neuroscience, is the alleged gunman in the Aurora movie theater shooting, in which 12 people were killed and 58 wounded on July 20.

Did the BETA group have a responsibility to alert the police that there was a potentially dangerous student?

Lawyers say the answer is maybe, maybe not.

On one side of the argument are those who say the main responsibility of the university is to protect its students, faculty, and administrators. Since Holmes dropped out of the university before the BETA group could meet, the argument goes, they had very little responsibility for him.

“The university has a legal duty to protect its students, not the world at large,” says Barry Pollack, a defense lawyer and partner in the Washington law firm of Miller & Chevalier. “If they get information about someone who is not a student, it is not in their purview to do anything about it.”

On the other side are those who say that if Holmes made threats while he was still a student, the BETA group had a responsibility to act. A reasonable person would have called the police, they argue.


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