When colleges face threats, these teams quietly try to prevent violence

Photo for The Washington Post by Justin Ide
The University of Virginia mourns victims of a fatal shooting at the Charlottesville campus.

The student suffered from a delusional fear that a faculty member meant to cause him harm. A poem he wrote, discovered on his computer, envisioned deadly violence. The University of Southern California also learned the student had bought a gun in the apparent belief he needed to protect himself.

That led to swift intervention, recalled Patrick Prince, USC’s associate vice provost for threat assessment and management. “We got him hospitalized,” Prince said. The student eventually graduated, and Prince keeps in touch. “He’s doing very well.”

Threat assessment has become an increasingly vital task during the past two decades at colleges and universities across the country. Teams of internal experts field tips, sift through evidence, and conduct quiet investigations to determine whether a student or an employee could turn violent, or would benefit from help. Almost always, the cases they monitor remain hidden from public view – unless calamity strikes.

The shooting last Sunday at the University of Virginia that left three students dead and two others injured has generated sharp scrutiny of how the 26,000-student school in Charlottesville responds to potential threats. The suspect, U-Va. student Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., came to the attention of the university’s threat assessment team in mid-September after another student said Jones told him he had a gun.

There was no specific threat tied to the remark, U-Va. officials said, nor did Jones’s roommate see him with a gun. But U-Va.’s threat assessment team also learned that Jones had been convicted of a misdemeanor concealed-weapon violation last year, officials said, and Jones refused to cooperate when U-Va. investigators tried to learn more. He apparently did not disclose the offense, contrary to university rules. Officials emailed him on Oct. 26 to say that he faced imminent disciplinary action. Such internal proceedings – involving punishment for breaking student conduct rules – often take weeks or months to resolve.

There is no national count of the number of colleges and universities with threat assessment teams. But most colleges now have such a group, said John Ojeisekhoba, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. A few states, including Virginia, require them.

These teams have grown more common since the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, and Ojeisekhoba said they’re needed more than ever. In the past year, the association has seen a significant rise in cases that needed scrutiny.

“We’re very concerned,” Ojeisekhoba said.

U-Va. is not the only university reeling from recent violence. Four University of Idaho students were fatally stabbed last Sunday in a rental home, devastating and frightening the 11,000-student campus. Officials were racing to investigate the mysterious attack and did not identify a suspect in the immediate aftermath. They warned Wednesday that they cannot say there is no ongoing threat to the community in Moscow, Idaho.

Experts say mass shootings are frequently premeditated. “These offenders don’t just ‘snap,’ but rather engage in a systematic progression of behavior or pathway before the actual event occurs,” according to a recent analysis for the campus law enforcement association. There are many variations on the path from contemplation to action, but they all begin with some ideation toward violence. The key is to identify people on that trajectory, the analysis found, and “disrupt that process.”

Ojeisekhoba cited an example at a college in California where a student got upset in class and made a hand motion as though firing a gun at someone. A concerned classmate reported it. Through a threat assessment, Ojeisekhoba said, officials found a cache of weapons the student had amassed, and specific targets the student had identified.

Kicking out a student doesn’t necessarily extinguish a threat.

At the University of Arizona, a student named Murad Dervish was reported for harassment and threats to staff members at the building, according to court records. The university expelled him and banned him from school activities. Staff were told to call for help if they spotted him on campus.

On Oct. 5, someone called 911 when Dervish was seen entering a building where he had studied under Thomas Meixner, the head of the Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences Department, according to police. There, he allegedly shot and killed Meixner. He has been charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, first-degree burglary, possession of deadly weapon by prohibited possessor, and three counts of endangerment.

An attorney for Dervish did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

After the killing, Robert C. Robbins, president of the university, told the campus community on Oct. 17 that the university has had a threat assessment management team for nearly 20 years, “since the tragic killings of three University employees.” He said any member of the community can reach out to the multidisciplinary team to report threats. Several days later, Robbins announced that a retired FBI agent would be joining the team.

Threat assessment teams are about much more than law enforcement. Experts say the best units bring together campus police, student affairs, residential life, faculty, counseling and psychological services and other key elements of a university.

Sometimes they are merged with student-care teams dedicated to preventing suicide. Sometimes they are separate.

U-Va. counts at least 12 representatives on its threat assessment team. The state law that requires the teams at public colleges and universities was enacted after the Virginia Tech massacre. Many private colleges also have created such teams.

U-Va. Police Chief Timothy J. Longo Sr., a member of the university’s threat assessment team, told reporters Monday that the student affairs office had “made efforts” to contact Jones in the weeks before the shooting about the report of his gun possession. U-Va. spokesman Brian Coy said the threat assessment team moved to escalate the Jones case for disciplinary action after he “repeatedly refused to cooperate” with university officials seeking information.

“It’s always helpful” to speak directly with the people who may pose the threat, said Dave Okada, president of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals. “It’s going to vary based on circumstances. Can you orchestrate having a conversation with them without being threatening? There may be times when you may not want to.”

U-Va. declined after Longo’s news conference to make available for interviews any officials affiliated with its threat assessment team. It also declined to answer numerous written questions about its handling of the Jones case, including whether officials knocked on the door of the student’s campus residence in an effort to talk with him.

Several security experts reached by The Washington Post declined to share opinions about U-Va.’s handling of the Jones case because they don’t know much about the details of what happened.

S. Daniel Carter, a campus safety consultant based in Georgia, said it appeared from U-Va.’s disclosures that the university took multiple steps in the assessment of Jones.

“It sounds like they did it by the book,” Carter said. “They had information. They acted on information.” Still, he said, there were unanswered questions. “If everything was done by the book, and something catastrophic happens, it may be time to revisit the book.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Justin Ide
U-Va. President James E. Ryan speaks at a news conference Monday after three students were killed and two others injured.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares (R), at U-Va.’s request, plans to appoint a special counsel to review the university’s response to the shooting and interactions with Jones beforehand. Among the questions, U-Va. President James E. Ryan said, is “whether we did all we could to prevent or avoid this tragedy.” He pledged to share the results when the review is complete.

Universities deal with dozens or even hundreds of cases a year. Many actively encourage students and employees to report threats.

Virginia Tech, which has about 37,000 students, said its threat assessment team handled 509 cases in 2020 and 492 last year. Some of those are cases involving potential suicide threats, the university said.

At George Mason University, with 39,000 students, the threat assessment team as of Wednesday was tracking 38 active cases of potential threats, said Juliet Blank-Godlove, dean of students and co-chair of the team. The team meets weekly, or more often if needed. “If something comes up, we don’t wait,” she said.

It is hard to measure the performance of these teams.

“Success is when there’s not a tragic incident,” Blank-Godlove said. “And there could be situations where perhaps an intervention stopped a tragic event, but we won’t know that, and we’d be speculating if we said it did.”

Blank-Godlove called the U-Va. shooting “absolutely tragic.” Like some other experts, she said she could not comment further on the case because she didn’t know the details. “My guess is that there’s more things we’re not aware of,” she said.

Gene Deisinger, a consultant who helps train threat assessment teams in Virginia, Illinois and elsewhere, cautioned that gun issues are not simple. “Lots of people have weapons, and there’s some that have misdemeanor convictions, and the vast majority of those don’t go on to commit critical acts of violence,” he said.

Often when there is a campus shooting, Carter said, hindsight turns up issues that require more scrutiny. “Unfortunately, we learn lessons about what we didn’t know.”

After the shooting, one U-Va. student was shocked to discover that he had just been assigned to live with Jones next semester. That student’s mother, who showed The Post evidence of the housing assignment, spoke on the condition of anonymity to guard the student’s privacy. The student has since been reassigned to another room. But the mother said she wondered whether the threat assessment involving Jones and guns was flagged or considered when the housing assignment was made. “My husband and I really need some questions answered,” she said.

U-Va. did not respond to questions from The Post about the mother’s account.

Marlon Lynch, vice president for public safety and police chief at Michigan State University, said an allegation that a student had a gun would be addressed by the department of police and public safety. It would make contact directly, Lynch said, seeking to determine the credibility of the allegation and an appropriate response. “If a roommate says, ‘Yes, I saw them with a gun,’ ” in a dorm, he said, the department would want to make sure the roommates and other students living there are safe, and then attempt to make contact without creating a dangerous situation.

In most cases students are compliant, Lynch said, but investigators could get a search warrant if needed.

After Jones was arrested, a search of his residence found a rifle and a handgun, according to Virginia State Police.

Prince, of USC, said margins for error are thin. “If we don’t do the right thing, we could have terrible outcomes.” Effective threat assessment, he said, requires a major institutional commitment. “Identifying risk is easy. Identifying true risk is a challenge.”