American Culture

Misguided University of Colorado response to campus stabbing: is it about safety or is it about litigation and the media?

On Monday, an incoming freshman at the University of Colorado was injured in a knife attack by a mentally ill former university employee. The student is fine, fortunately, and the assailant is in custody.

As the Denver Post story notes, there are some disturbing issues where the attacker is concerned.

The suspect, identified as 39-year-old Kenton Drew Astin, worked at CU last year as a cashier at the Alferd Packer Grill at the student center. He was arrested and hospitalized Monday with serious stab wounds, the school said.

Astin was sent to a state mental hospital in 2001 after being accused of stabbing a 21-year-old Longmont man. Court records show Astin pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity on charges including attempted first-degree murder in that case.

In a memo to the university community, Chancellor Bud Peterson explains that Astin’s relationship with the school owed to a venture that seeks to help the mentally ill with their recovery.

Astin had been employed here briefly as part of a cooperative program between CU-Boulder and Chinook Clubhouse. His employment here was uneventful. He had no performance or behavior issues throughout his six months employment at UMC, which ended in April 2007. Chinook Clubhouse is a program dedicated to enhancing the recovery of men and women with mental illnesses. It provides opportunities for members to live, work, learn, and socialize while contributing their talents in a community of mutual support The Chinook Clubhouse, which is not affiliated with the University, works with the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation to offer transitional employment opportunities for its clients. We have worked with the Chinook Clubhouse to provide temporary employment for a small number of its clients for 17 years with no incidents.

Certainly a major state university can play a productive role in these kinds of programs, and if this is in fact the first problem in 17 years then it’s a huge tribute to both the University of Colorado and The Chinook Clubhouse. Monday’s events would, in this context, clearly seem to represent the rarest of exceptions, not the rule.

Still, given the frenzied attention we devote to the safety of youths these days and the potential for the media to pounce on even the slightest perceived misstep, the university was bound to react quickly, and it did. Just over 12 hours after the attack Peterson issued a statement noting a series of policy changes aimed at preventing a recurrence of what could have been a far more tragic event than it was. (The full text of the memo follows at the end of this post.)

However, those with some experience in how university administrations operate won’t be surprised to learn that the school’s response was … sub-optimal.

I hate to criticize – it’s commendable that university officials acted with uncharacteristic swiftness and that they did so with an eye toward better protecting the campus community (this is the charitable interpretation, at least). That said, speed and good intentions count for a lot less than actually getting the policy details right. To illustrate, let’s walk through the measures one at a time.

1) Conduct criminal background checks on all new employees-permanent and temporary employees alike.

Sounds like a good idea. And maybe it is. However:

  • This will entail significant cost; sure, you put safety ahead of money, but the policy appears guaranteed to spend more than is necessary.
  • University policies will dictate that these checks be conducted even on people who have been known to the community for years; for instance, if I were hired by the school (and this is likely, since I already do some consulting work there) they’ll have to do a check on me, even though I spent several years there getting my PhD and teaching. I imagine that if Peterson himself were to leave the school and come back two years later they’d have to do a check on him. Does this make sense to you?
  • That this policy would have prevented Monday’s attack is unclear, at best; even if they keep security risks from getting into the system, that hardly prevents people from walking on campus – if I understand where the attack took place, it’s maybe 50 yards from Broadway, a main city street, and there are no physical barriers to keep anyone from accessing that terrace.

I wonder about the school’s ability to execute this step efficiently and effectively, and while it makes sense in principle, it makes better sense if the actual driving motivation is to avoid litigation.

2) Continue to do background checks on a number of existing employees

Really? What criteria will be used to determine who gets checked? This is a state organization, which means that the program will have to avoid even the slightest appearance of discrimination or targeting. Which means it will have to be random. Which means it will be insanely wasteful.

Besides, if somebody is on-site doing a job and there are no problems (and the checks are aimed at preventing violent behavior, remember), what are the odds that the program is going to tag a legitimate safety threat?

Let me translate this item for you: “We’ll spend whatever it takes to make sure we aren’t liable in court.”

3) Review the status of our current background checks policy to determine what changes are needed.

Ummm, okay. I’m good with this one, especially since the current policy apparently wasn’t even vetting the most obvious sources of concern.

The University of Colorado never checked criminal backgrounds of mentally ill clients referred to them by a Boulder mental-health agency, college officials acknowledge.

And the Mental Health Center of Boulder County didn’t volunteer the criminal backgrounds of their clients, even when one of them – Kenton Astin – had tried to stab a stranger in the eyes and heart because he didn’t like the way he looked.

CU has accepted since 1990 the mental-health agency’s assurance that psychological evaluations cleared each of them to work on the bustling campus.

That said, this step seems implied by the first two. Whatever.

4) Initiate a comprehensive review of all “referred employment relationships” like the one we have with the Chinook Clubhouse and suspend the hiring of any new additions until this review is completed.

Sure, but what is that likely to accomplish? Maybe some of the university’s relationships are iffy, but how would this policy have affected the current case? As Peterson’s own memo notes, Chinook had what sounds like a 17-year undefeated streak working. Further, Astin must have looked like a good risk. He’d been treated and discharged from the state mental hospital in Pueblo, and

…has been in rehabilitation and treatment locally, under close supervision, since his release more than two years ago and until this morning’s incident had never demonstrated any aggressive behavior. His temporary employment with the University was a part of his return to being a productive member of the community. We have no reason to believe that his prior employment was related in any way to today’s attack.

At this point you begin to get the sense, if you didn’t already, that Peterson (and the phalanx of lawyers who helped craft this memo) are treading a fine line: one the one hand, the policy needs to suggest that there’s danger out there and that CU is on it, while at the same time making clear that there was nothing that could have been done in this case.

Those two mandates are in direct competition here. If the program and Astin weren’t a problem, then we don’t need new policies. If they were, it’s not going to go well in court.

5) Conduct a review of all temporary employees from these organizations and place them on administrative leave with pay until criminal background checks are completed.

So:

  • one guy,
  • who your own analysis says was a good employee,
  • working through an organization with a spotless 17-year record, and
  • who a series of qualified experts signed off on, and
  • whose actions were in no way related to his employment stint,
  • who could easily have had no relationship with the school…

this one rare case is leading to a blanket temporary suspension of all employees with all similar organizations? Really? I mean, Peterson himself calls this “a single, unprovoked and random act of violence that defies our imagination and challenges the very best of planning and preparation…”

If I understand the school’s position, the event was unforeseeable and nearly impossible to plan for, but they’re nonetheless going to spend a lot of money because they have to do something.

I’m a huge fan of crisis preparation and my own crisis methodology is as extensive as anything you’re likely to see in the professional world. But it also pays close attention to probabilities. If you could prepare for every eventuality you would, but absent infinite time and resources you account first for those cases that are both more likely and more harmful.

When you react as CU has, though, you siphon critical resources away from those cases and flush them on what, in this case, looks like a concerted attempt to hold lawyers and the media at bay.

I respect the difficulty of the position in which university officials find themselves, but in the long run I don’t think the school is especially well served by a kneejerk reaction that fails to solve the problem before it.

______________

Text of Chancellor Peterson’s Memo to the CU Community

TO: Boulder Campus Teaching & Research Faculty, Staff, Deans, Directors, Dept Chairs, System Administration

FROM: Chancellor G.P. “Bud” Peterson

DATE: August 27, 2007

SUBJECT: Update on Stabbing Incident at CU-Boulder

A Message to the CU-Boulder Campus Faculty, Staff and Students:

I know most of you have learned of the unfortunate incident that occurred this morning at the University Memorial Center. A freshman student at the University of Colorado at Boulder has been released from the hospital following a random stabbing by a middle-aged man who stormed the terrace of the campus student union this morning.

The stabbing occurred about 9:43 a.m. when the suspect, who was arrested immediately following the incident, approached the student at the University Memorial Center. Both the student and the suspect were taken to a local hospital. I am happy to report that the student, Michael G. Knorps, a freshman finance major from Chicago, is doing very well. Doctors report that he will be able to return to classes as early as tomorrow if he so desires. I spoke to Michael shortly after the incident while he was at the hospital and he was in remarkably good spirits. I have also kept in contact with Michael’s family throughout the day. Representatives of the Office of Victims Assistance have been with Michael most of the day and are providing assistance to his family as well.

I applaud the rapid response of law enforcement officials to this incident. The Boulder County Sheriff’s officer who responded first to the attack while it was occurring had been directing traffic near the UMC. A Boulder Police officer driving by also responded while the situation was in progress, and CU Police responded within moments to assist in treating and evacuating the victim, to secure and remove the assailant, and to conduct a thorough search and investigation of the scene. The attacker’s backpack and vehicle were examined by Boulder City Police bomb experts who found no additional weapons or hazardous materials.

The attacker, who has now been charged but is still undergoing medical care for his self-inflicted wounds, has been identified as Kenton Drew Astin, 39, a former temporary employee of the UMC. Astin had been employed here briefly as part of a cooperative program between CU-Boulder and Chinook Clubhouse. His employment here was uneventful. He had no performance or behavior issues throughout his six months employment at UMC, which ended in April 2007. Chinook Clubhouse is a program dedicated to enhancing the recovery of men and women with mental illnesses. It provides opportunities for members to live, work, learn, and socialize while contributing their talents in a community of mutual support The Chinook Clubhouse, which is not affiliated with the University, works with the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation to offer transitional employment opportunities for its clients. We have worked with the Chinook Clubhouse to provide temporary employment for a small number of its clients for 17 years with no incidents.

The assailant, prior to his employment, had been charged with various crimes including criminal intent to commit first degree murder, but had been found “not guilty by reason of insanity” and ordered in to treatment at the Colorado state mental hospital in Pueblo. He has been in rehabilitation and treatment locally, under close supervision, since his release more than two years ago and until this morning’s incident had never demonstrated any aggressive behavior. His temporary employment with the University was a part of his return to being a productive member of the community. We have no reason to believe that his prior employment was related in any way to today’s attack.

Nevertheless, today’s incident has compelled us to take several actions to ensure a safe and secure campus for all our faculty, staff, students, visitors, and the community at large. Effective immediately, we will take the following actions:

  1. Conduct, criminal background checks on all new employees-permanent and temporary employees alike.
  2. Continue to do background checks on a number of existing employees
  3. Review the status of our current background checks policy to determine what changes are needed.
  4. Initiate a comprehensive review of all “referred employment relationships” like the one we have with the Chinook Clubhouse and suspend the hiring of any new additions until this review is completed.
  5. Conduct a review of all temporary employees from these organizations and place them on administrative leave with pay until criminal background checks are completed.

We have made counseling services available to faculty, staff and students who may need them. Students, faculty and staff emotionally affected by today’s incident are encouraged to contact one of several psychological services offices on campus. Counseling will be made available on a walk-in basis in the Office of Victim Assistance, in Counseling and Psychological Services, and through the Center for Multicultural Affairs. All three offices are located on the first and second floors of the Willard Administrative Center located just northeast of Regent Hall.

Let me conclude by again extending our heartfelt thanks to the rapid response of law enforcement officials on the scene who prevented this horrible, random attack from escalating into something far more dangerous and harmful. Campus security will continue on a heightened state of awareness with increased patrols of the campus and housing areas for the remainder of this week. I encourage anyone seeing anything suspicious to take action and report it immediately to the CUPD Dispatch at (303) xxx.xxxx.

I also want to express the deepest regret and sympathy to Michael Knorps and his family for this terrible ordeal they have experienced today. We endeavor to do all that we can do to ensure a safe and welcoming environment here on the CU-Boulder campus for all of our students, faculty, staff and visitors. Although today’s attack was a single, unprovoked and random act of violence that defies our imagination and challenges the very best of planning and preparation, we will be ever vigilant in our efforts to make this the safe and secure university environment we want it to continue to be. We are thankful that Michael is safe and has been released into the loving arms of his family. He is a brave young man and, from my conversation with him, I am very impressed at how well he is handling this traumatic event.

Finally, I encourage all of you to sign up for the emergency text/email messaging service that was implemented for CU-Boulder just last week and was used for the first time today to alert the campus of this incident. Our study of the Virginia Tech shootings and emergency response led us to adopt this form of emergency notification as one way to get critical information out much more quickly and reliably than email.

The text/email messaging service is intended to convey time-critical information in emergencies – with additional information on breaking news/events provided on the CU-Boulder website which was continuously updated throughout the day. The university issued a text message at 10:20 a.m. to approximately 1,300 students, faculty and staff members who had signed up for the service since it was activated less than a week ago on Aug. 23. I encourage you all to sign up for this important free service. Students, faculty and staff with a colorado.edu e-mail address can sign up online through CUConnect.

5 replies »

  1. When I joined UCHSC four years ago, there was no background check. About 2 years ago, they instituted background checks for all new employees (Brandon’s been checked twice, since he’s started 2 jobs at UCHSC in that time.) Already-employed folks don’t get a background check unless they switch jobs.

    Frankly, when this all happened, I was surprised, as I thought that was a system-wide requirement, not campus-specific.

    What concerns me most is that Astin stabbed another man, in 2001, in almost the exact same manner, and was found not-guilty by reason of insanity. And then they placed in a job in the middle of a bunch of college students? Not just on campus, but in the main campus eatery where the frenzy level is high?

  2. Something obviously went wrong. Maybe the school’s plan would have stopped it. Maybe not. But I look at what’s being said and what’s being done and there’s a disconnect that suggests maybe security ain’t driving the bus.

    You hate like hell to inject money into these kinds of decisions, but let’s be honest – CU places a budget number on campus security every year, and in doing so is making a de facto cost-benefit decision.

    So let’s see where a little honest analysis takes us…..

  3. “The suspect, identified as 39-year-old Kenton Drew Astin, worked at CU last year as a cashier at the Alferd Packer Grill

    oh good grief. all he has to do is claim he was possessed.

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