November 7, 2019
A new study of school shootings released by the U.S. Secret Service on Thursday found that most school shooters exhibited observable warning signs well ahead of their attacks and urged schools across the nation to adopt prevention strategies that include threat assessment teams and anonymous reporting systems.
The study by the National Threat Assessment Center is part of the second phase of the Safe Schools Initiative and is based on 41 incidents of “targeted school violence” that took place in American schools from 2008 to 2017.
Although many of the findings in the latest study show a continuation of the trends outlined in recent years, this latest report underscores the importance of prevention strategies.
“Many of the schools that experienced these tragedies had implemented physical security measures (e.g., cameras, school resource officers, lockdown procedures),” the report states. “Prevention is key.”
All attackers exhibited concerning behaviors. Most elicited concern from others, and most communicated their intent to attack. “In many cases, someone observed a threatening communication or behavior but did not act, either out of fear, not believing the attacker, misjudging the immediacy or location, or believing they had dissuaded the attacker,” the report states.
Concerning behaviors ranged from relatively minor activities, to actions that elicited fear in those who observed them. For example, some attackers made statements that were simply out of character for the attacker or displayed other minor changes in behavior, while in other cases, attackers made direct threats of violence or brought weapons to school. In most of the cases, the attacker’s behavior elicited concern from bystanders regarding the safety of the attacker or those around them.
“In most cases, attackers displayed a behavior that was so concerning that it should have been met with an immediate response, including a threat assessment,” the report states. “These behaviors are seen as being objectively concerning or prohibited. Examples include threats to cause harm, violent acts, bringing weapons to school, and suicidal statements.”
Other observable behaviors included pre-attack planning actions. More than half of the attackers engaged in observable planning behaviors prior to carrying out their attack that went beyond making statements of intent. According to the study, 12 attackers exhibited three or more different types of planning activities that were observable to others. “Of note, the attackers in this study who perpetrated mass attacks averaged more than twice as many planning behaviors as attackers with fewer victims,” the report states.
Most of the attackers studied were victims of bullying, which was often observed by others. In fact, for more than half of the attackers the bullying appeared to be of a persistent pattern which lasted for weeks, months, or years.
One of the most troubling conclusions of the report is the failure of schools to provide effective reporting platforms for students, parents and teachers to report concerning behaviors.
“Only seven (17%) schools had any type of system in place to notify school staff or administrators of threatening or concerning student behaviors before an attack,” according to the report. “At the time of the incidents, few states had implemented comprehensive statewide reporting programs.”