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

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“If a student says they are going to kill someone on Monday but drops out of school on Tuesday, there is a duty to take reasonable steps,” says Kenneth Simons, a professor of law at Boston University School of Law.

The key issue, says Professor Simons, is what Holmes may have actually said in his session with the school psychiatrist, identified by Holmes’ defense team as Dr. Lynne Fenton, director of the school’s Mental Health Service. Did he specifically say he was going to a theater or mall to kill people?

At this point no one knows what took place between Holmes and Dr. Fenton. In addition, the judge in the case has invoked a gag order, forbidding the police and other people involved with the case saying anything about it. More information is likely to come out at Holmes’ trial and perhaps during the discovery process if there are civil lawsuits.

However, in the state of Colorado, doctors are required to notify the police if there is a specific threat to an individual.

“If he [Holmes] said, ‘I am going to go to Aurora and go to a movie theater and kill people,’ there are steps such as going to the police or taking steps to commit him,” says Simons.

The issue of whether a school therapist should divulge information about a patient is being raised at a time of increased pressures on college students. They are taking on large debt loads and are unsure of whether they will have a job when they leave school. For whatever reason, some of them snap.

“We’ve had an increase in the number of students with psychological challenges,” says Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. “It’s just a sign of our times.”

Mr. Rosenberg says that at Macalester there is a risk group that meets every other week. “They report on whether there is a student on campus who seems at risk to himself or others or is in some sort of crisis situation,” he says. “If it seems to merit it, there is some intervention or reaching out from the group.”

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