Virginia should actually enforce threat assessment laws rather than just noting lack of compliance

By James C Sherlock

I’ve written about the Threat Assessment Teams (TAT) at two public universities, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

I have rated Tech as compliant with state laws. I reported that UVa is not. This, of course, begs the question of Virginia’s other colleges and universities.

The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) in 2014 with far more resources and access than I, found the state of the TAT, which serves the Commonwealth’s fifteen four-year State High Schools (IHL), its community colleges and private IHLs, is a hot mess as a group (my tenure).

Following this article, I will provide an assessment of compliance with the current guidelines of Virginia’s fifteen public IHLs.

The 2014 report did not have the intended effect of standardizing and professionalizing threat assessment and intervention in Virginia. Preliminary reviews of each’s policies show they’re still all over the map in terms of compliance.

I’m pretty sure that if DCJS repeated their poll tomorrow, it would come up with similar results and recommendations. Perhaps at this point the government should actually enforce the law rather than just reporting on non-compliance.

One wishes that had happened years earlier.

Background for the DCJS report. The Virginia General Assembly in 2008 passed legislation requiring every public higher education institution (IHE) to establish a Violence Prevention Committee (VPC) and Threat Assessment Team (TAT).

These two organizations have been accused of preventing violence on campus

  • policy making on the one hand; and
  • Assess and intervene when individuals engage in behaviors that may pose a threat to the safety of the campus community on the other side.

There is a separate guide in the Law for the structures of a Violence Prevention Committee and a Threat Assessment Team at each public IHE.

Each Violence Prevention Committee (VPC), then as now, was charged with specific policy-making responsibilities, including

“(a) the assessment of individuals whose conduct may constitute a threat,

(b) appropriate means of intervening with such persons and

(c) reasonable opportunity to take action, including provisional suspension, referral to charitable organizations or health care providers for evaluation or treatment, medical segregation to eliminate potential physical threats, and notification of family members or guardians or both, unless such notification would prove to be harmful for that person, consistent with state and federal law.”

Every ACT, was still committed to implementing the assessment, intervention and action guidelines set by the VPC.

The DCJS used an earlier version of the current law, but that version (§23-9.2:10. Violence Prevention Committee; Threat Assessment Team) did not differ in any material respect from the current §23.1-805.

DCJS produced in September 2021 a to learn who indicated that Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) information was available to TATs, including the TAT’s institutional police officers.

Findings and Recommendations. There is no question that immediately after the publication of the 2014 study, changes consistent with the findings could have been mandated at state IHLs.

They were not. I have no idea why not.

Selected results follow and are cited in full.

The majority of public entities VPCs (about 70%) and TATs (about 75%) have the types of representation (student affairs, law enforcement, counseling services, etc.) on the committees required by §23-9.2:10. Community colleges appear slightly less likely than four-year public institutions to have all the necessary representation, but this may be due to overlapping or duplicate roles held by the same person on the committees.

Regarding intervention strategies, institutional policies most likely include behavioral disciplinary review, provisional suspension, and voluntary referral to mental health services (all over 80%). Involuntary hospital admissions (51%) or medical separation (45%) were the least common, particularly for community colleges.

18% of institutions said they always use at least one assessment tool during their threat assessment process.

Almost two-thirds (64%) of organizations reported having between five and ten TAT members. The average number of team members was eight, the minimum was five and the maximum was 16 members.

The largest percentage of TATs were headed by a student affairs representative (41%), followed by a law enforcement/public safety representative (27%).

Only seven four-year public institutions, one adult education center and one private institution indicated that they had allocated a budget specifically for threat assessment.

80% of four-year public institutions said they have a social media monitoring mechanism in place, in contrast to 47% of community colleges and 47% of private institutions.

91% of institutions reported that their TAT assessed one or more threat cases in the 2013-2014 academic year. Four institutions reported no threat assessment cases during this period. A total of 1,217 threat assessment cases were reported.

The number of threat assessment cases reviewed in the 2013-2014 academic year varied widely between institutions, as did the risk levels assigned to those cases by the institutions. This suggests that there are differences between institutions in how they define and report threats and how they assess their level of risk.

The survey responses published in the report are even more interesting than the results. Take intervention strategies. Thirteen out of 15 public bodies had intervention strategies that included a temporary suspension. Presumably the other two contained UVa.

First required policy of the VPC:

Then the TAT executes the policy:

Apart from that, we can see that TAT’s policy is followed.

If the provisional suspension was not part of the policy, it was not used. In the case of the alleged UVa shooter, of course, it was not used. And it is not mentioned in the current UVa directive.

bottom line. Current law needs to be updated to define TATs as law enforcement activities directed by the police chief, with a dedicated law enforcement investigator deployed like Virginia Tech, and with the participation of mental health professionals and legal counsel as required by law.

They should have access to other university/college resources for case-specific support, but the concept of running threat assessment teams with student affairs staff is absurd and needs to stop.

Populating the TATs with other campus stakeholders by law or even voluntarily slows the process at best and is counterproductive to community safety at worst.

Inexplicably, as a result of this DCJS study, no instructions were given to government institutions. Recommendations only.

“College administrators may wish to further investigate the reasons why there are differences in compliance with certain aspects of the legal requirements for TATs between Virginia community colleges and the public four-year IHEs.”

“Maybe.”

Some obviously didn’t want that.

Virginia Pre-K-12 Public Schools have very similar requirements. Wonder how are they?

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