Following the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech in 2008, the legislature directed public universities to set up “threat assessment teams,” made up of campus police, mental health, student services and others, to identify potentially violent students, faculty and staff.
Led by the University of Virginia’s lobbyist Rob Lockridge, the colleges came first to the FOIA Council and then to the legislature asking that these teams (TATs) be given permission to share some of the information each held. There was no objection by anyone to that proposal.
But two identical bills introduced during the session would have created an indefinite FOIA exemption for all records that a TAT might generate.
The House bill, sponsored by Charlottesville-area Republican Rob Bell, moved briskly through the House, fending off an amendment offered by VPA to modify the exemption to allow for the release of certain TAT records if some violent incident occurred in the future.
The Senate bill, which was carried by Roanoke Democrat John Edwards, was stripped of the FOIA amendment entirely. The notion was to pass the rest of the bill but to study the proposed amendment in the FOIA Council until next year’s session.
When Bell’s bill got to the Senate, the Senate General Laws FOI Subcommittee, chaired by Edd Houck (D-Spotsylvania), stripped out the FOIA exemption and recommended study by the FOIA Council.
Meanwhile, back in the House, an Education subcommittee put the FOIA exemption back into Edwards’ bill.
Edwards’ bill thus passed the House with the exemption intact, while the Senate was set to approve Bell’s bill minus the exemption.
The bills thus headed to conference committee, where Houck, Edwards and Sen. John Miller (D-Newport News) sat down with Delegates Bell, Jimmie Massie (R-Richmond) and Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) to iron out differences.
On what was supposed to be the last day of the session (March 13), the conferees came up with a compromise: (1) there would be a FOIA exemption for most TAT records; (2) records related to an individual involved in some future violent event will be released; (3) in no event will student medical records be released; and (4) in no event will the name of a student who provides information about another student to the TAT be released.
As the recent bestseller “Columbine” demonstrates, the public will be searching for answers long after the occurrence of a traumatic event. Making some of the TAT records available to the public means that not only will the victims, families, campus community, alumni and general public have some immediate access, but historians, social scientists and journalists can review the records in years to come as well.