The University of Colorado is investigating its staff's communication with James Holmes, a former graduate student at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, in the months leading up to a mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater.
On Aug. 3, CU announced it hired former U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado Robert Miller to conduct the investigation. Miller began his internal review about one week before the news went public.
Holmes, 24, was pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience at CU before he dropped out in June. He is accused of fatally shooting 12 people and wounding 58 on July 20 during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo. Holmes was charged with 24 counts of first-degree murder -- two counts for each of the 12 deaths -- in what is now considered one of the deadliest domestic terrorism attacks in recent years.
Holmes was a solid student with no criminal record, leaving Aurora's community devastated and grasping for explanations. CU pledged its full cooperation with the investigation, stating its determination to understand what led to the tragedy.
"The Board of Regents serves the State of Colorado and is committed to understanding the circumstances of the tragic event that has so deeply affected our community," said Board of Regents Chair Michael Carrigan in the press release. "Engaging an independent attorney of Bob Miller’s caliber is an important part of that commitment and the Board of Regents appreciates his efforts.”
Miller's investigation has no deadline, and it is unclear to what degree the findings will be made public. In an email to The Huffington Post, Jacque Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the university, confirmed the scope of the review is completely up to Miller.
In the meantime, a court order is preventing school officials from disclosing information regarding the investigation. It also cannot discuss a variety of student-related records under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Miller is not taking calls from the media.
Critical in the investigation will be the university's response to school psychiatrist Lynne Fenton's reported warnings that Holmes was a threat to campus safety.
According to ABC News Denver affiliate KMGH-TV, Fenton treated Holmes while he was enrolled at CU. Fenton, also a "key member" of the school's behavioral evaluation and threat assessment team (BETA), became so concerned by his behavior, she contacted other members of BETA and a campus police officer regarding Holmes.
Psychiatrists are allowed to divulge information on a patient if they believe he may harm others, since the 1976 Tarasoff decision, after the murder of UC Berkeley student Tatiana Tarasoff.
Concerns about Holmes reportedly surfaced in early June. However, the Ph.D. candidate quit the doctoral program June 10 -- three days after failing an important oral exam. Reports now confirm that he bought an assault rifle right after the exam.
The BETA team did not follow up on Holmes after he began the withdrawal process. According to KMGH, the team believed at that point it "had no control over him" and never conducted a formal meeting.
The warning about Holmes' mental state and the school's culpability in predicting the attack resembles the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. That April, a 23-year-old student named Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting spree, murdering 32 people on Virginia Tech's campus before killing himself. It remains the worst mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history.
Lucinda Roy, an English professor at Virginia Tech and author of "No Right To Remain Silent,"knew Seung-Hui in the years before his attack. In an interview with HuffPost, she explained she reported Seung-Hui in 2005 after he submitted disturbing writing in English classes.
However, despite her warnings, little action could be taken since Seung-Hui did not make overt threats or present an imminent danger. She said that since the tragedy, Virginia Tech has improved drastically in dealing with these situations.
Later, Virginia Tech was found guilty for negligence for not warning the campus quickly enough during the shooting.
Of the Aurora shooting, Roy said it was unfortunately unsurprising that the BETA team didn't follow through on an investigation of Holmes. "Very often people feel that as long as they get the person out of their particular location, then things will be okay. That is, of course, not necessarily the case … you're just shifting the problem to another site rather than tackling it."
But Roy stressed the difficulties of handling these students. "People don't understand just how dangerous and risky it can be to deal with students who are so deeply disturbed."
She pointed to various problems with mental health services. "It can be extremely difficult to get long-term treatment," Roy said. "Therefore, even when everyone does the right thing, it can be very difficult to get someone the help they need … and people should be aware of that before jumping to conclusions about what the university did and did not do."
But not everyone agrees. ABC News interviewed threat assessment expert Barry Spodak, who criticized the CU BETA team for not pursuing the case. He said that, if anything, removing himself from the Ph.D. program indicated more potential for danger.
"I think that's a signal that you should intensify efforts, not walk away," he said. "Under those circumstances, most well-trained threat assessment teams would have gone into action."
Montgomery could not comment specifically on Holmes' history with Fenton, but she told HuffPost that whether or not a student continues to receive care is the student's decision.
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