Foolish Non-Transparency

One Lesson From the Aurora Tragedy

Posted Jul 24, 2012

I have lived in the Denver area since late 1998, and the two bookends of this tenure have been shooting rampages: at Columbine High School in Littleton (in April, 1999) and in the movie theater in Aurora (in July, 2012). My contact with both of these tragic events has been very peripheral: I am a neighbor of the family of Dylan Klebold (one of the two Columbine shooters) and I am a clinical professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, where the most recent shooter, James Holmes, attended graduate school. To my knowledge, I never met either Klebold or Holmes, although I did get to know Tom Klebold (Dylan’s father) slightly a few months before Columbine.

Although I have become active as a forensic expert in capital cases, my background as an authority in Intellectual Disabilities has caused me to testify mainly in cases where the defendants are at the other end of the intelligence spectrum from the apparently very bright Klebold and Holmes. However, as someone who studies foolish behavior, I have a strong interest in both events, as it would be difficult to think of anything more foolish (not to mention evil) than killing a dozen or more innocent people for no reason that makes any sense.

I did write about Klebold in an earlier column, but not enough is known yet about Holmes for me to feel comfortable writing about him. One reason why we know so little is because the administrators at the University of Colorado refused (and discouraged Holmes’ peers) to answer any questions about the young man’s academic and adjustment difficulties, or to describe any intervention tried with him, during the crucial months of decomposition leading up to his killing spree.

The main reason given by the CU administrators for refusing to answer questions about Holmes at a news conference was that they were asked not to do so by investigators. I do not know if this is true or not, but I do know that such advice (unless backed by a judge) has no force of law, and my preference would have been for them to ignore any such request, and been at least a little more forthcoming. It is not clear to me how information divulged now about Holmes could in any way hinder the prosecution of him, but it is clear that any emerging information about Holmes appearing psychotic or severely disturbed could hinder efforts by the police and prosecution to paint a public picture of him as competent enough to be tried and executed. The concern of the university should not be to aid the prosecution (or, for that matter, the defense) but simply to tell the truth. Whether or not the stonewalling was intended to protect the university’s own liability (in perhaps not having done enough to either help Holmes or alert authorities to his possible dangerousness), the effect of such a stance is to give a strong impression that the university was looking out mainly for its own, rather than the public’s, interests.

The arrogance, not to mention public relations ineptness, of the CU administrators was most evident when a reporter asked whether the families of the victims, not to mention the general public, might not have a right to know something about Holmes’ time at the university. The administrator answered first that she was being transparent (something that obviously was not true) and that the families could wait until this information comes out in the course of the legal proceedings (something which I know, from experience, might not happen for two years or more).

The main problem here, in my opinion, is that the administrators were acting like bureaucrats, and were failing to understand that they were caught up in an event that was so extraordinary that the usual rules did not apply. Although they did not invoke the standard line about student (or staff) confidentiality, they certainly acted as if that was their default behavior. As someone who used to teach professional ethics to psychology graduate students, I know that an incorrect refusal by agencies to divulge information about client or student behavior often reflects confusion as to exactly “who owns the privilege” (i.e., has the right to decide who can receive personal information). In a more ordinary situation, it would be clear a student, or former student, such as James Holmes would own the privilege, but I believe that he gave up that ownership when he went on his rampage. So who does own the privilege to know about Mr. Holmes? The answer, to my mind, is the people of Colorado and the United States, including of course the surviving victims and families of deceased victims.

So here is what I would have said, had I been at the press conference at which the university administrators went into bureaucratic obfuscation mode: “this university, and your salaries, are supported mainly by the people of Colorado and of the United States of America. We have an urgent need, on an emotional and on a policy, level in knowing what caused James Holmes to terrorize the community of Aurora. It is your job to satisfy that need, whatever impact you believe it might have on the prosecution of this case or the reputation of your institution.”

                 Copyright Stephen Greenspan