Did UVA use the full power of its Threat Assessment Team to investigate Chris Jones before shooting?

Posted at 6:17 PM, Nov 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-22 21:47:09-05

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- After a student murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech in April of 2007, then-governor of Virginia Tim Kaine commissioned a review panel to make recommendations to schools and the General Assembly about how a tragedy like this could be prevented in the future.

Bill Leighty was Kaine's chief of staff at the time.

"There were a huge number of conversations," Leighty said.

Investigators learned about a troubling pattern of behavior by gunman Seung Hui Cho, including stalking incidents, property destruction, intimidation of professors and statements of wanting to commit suicide. Yet, Cho remained on campus.

"There was an abundance of evidence in his particular case that there was a possibility of a threat, but there was no formal mechanism in the university setting for someone to bring their case and say we need to make an assessment about whether this is a real threat or not," Leighty said.

That led to Virginia colleges being required to create threat assessment teams.

The University of Virginia even designated a professor, Dr. Dewey Cornell, who researches student threat assessments. Cornell also authored a guide on the topic that is used by other schools. He declined to comment on this story.

In the wake of the deadly shootings of three UVA football players, Leighty said he thinks the university made some mistakes.

"Clearly an opportunity to intervene was missed in this case," Leighty said.

The suspect in the shooting, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., a fifth-year senior at UVA, was known to the Threat Assessment Team.

University spokesperson Brian Coy said UVA Student Affairs was reviewing a potential hazing issue on September 15, when a student said Jones had made a comment about possessing a gun. Coy claims the comment was not made in conjunction with a threat. Still, UVA Police Chief Tim Longo said the person in student affairs contacted the Threat Assessment Team.

Coy said university officials made contact with Jones' roommate who gave no indication of the presence of any weapons, but Jones himself refused to cooperate.

"The full investigation was clearly not completed here," Leighty said. "When they could not reach the student himself and talked to his roommate instead, there should have been far more rigorous application of interview techniques of any of the other people he was affiliated with at the university, in his dorm, or in his home, family should have been contacted," Leighty said.

Coy said that during the investigation, university officials discovered Jones was previously convicted of a misdemeanor concealed weapons violation in 2021. CBS 6 confirmed the misdemeanor happened in Chesterfield.

Leighty said that the charge, coupled with the comment made by another student that Jones had a gun, should have led to a robust response from the Threat Assessment Team.

"The tragedy here was these events were not put together more appropriately and more timely," Leighty said.

And yet what happened?

UVA Student Affairs opted to escalate Jones's case for disciplinary action on October 27 through the University Judiciary Committee, which is a student-run body authorized to investigate and adjudicate alleged conduct violations. But Coy said they still had not been able to reach Jones.

"I think that was a major failing on the part of UVA was not to follow up there," Leighty said.

Coy said the committee sent Jones a letter alerting him to the possible discipline.

"If he was a threat at all, to send an email that might excite him further, was a mistake in my thought," Leighty said.

Yet, Coy said student affairs never actually transmitted its report on Jones to the University Judiciary Committee, so no action was taken. Perhaps worse than that, in Leighty's mind, is UVA's apparent failure to use the full authority of its Threat Assessment Team.

"It takes a combination of all of the evidence to be brought together, which is why the Threat Assessment Teams were created so that all of the evidence can be brought together, the criminal evidence, the law enforcement evidence, the student's performance evidence, the relationship he has with his peers, that's what the whole threat assessment concept is about," Leighty said.

Leighty said it's important to remember that just because there were a number of missed opportunities, in this case, doesn't necessarily mean officials could have prevented this act of violence.

The university's president, Jim Ryan, has asked the Virginia Attorney General to investigate the efforts the university undertook in the period before the tragedy to assess the potential threat that Jones posed to the UVA community.