July 19, 2018
The national, nonprofit Police Foundation recently announced it will begin a study of “averted acts of school violence.” Backed by funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the National Institute of Justice, the study seeks to apply the concept of “the near miss,” which is routinely used in the aviation field to improve policies and procedures. The concept is based on the assertion that for every incident that actually occurs there are many, many more that are averted but don’t make the headlines.
The Police Foundation has built a nationwide database of averted and completed acts of school violence from which the study data will be drawn. So far, analysts have studied 51 incidents of averted school violence and preliminary results have found that the vast majority of plots were discovered and reported by the school attacker’s peers, followed by school staff.1
“Typically, attacks are averted because someone warned law enforcement or school officials,” said chief Dean Esserman (Ret.), senior counselor at the Police Foundation. “That can be a potential shooter’s family member, a friend, classmate, staff at school or just someone who saw enough of something to say something. We know this has happened because we have been tracking averted attacks for almost two years. The bottom line is, we must take steps to prevent horrific acts of school violence from happening in the first place.”2
Homeland security and law enforcement experts know from many years of studying mass casualty attacks and workplace violence, that an attacker’s trajectory to violence is almost never spontaneous or linear. The road to violence is littered with concerning behaviors and planning activities that span days, weeks or months and are often observed by individuals in a position to intervene and disrupt.
So how do we define and communicate the value of prevention in this context? Like the trajectory to violence, the process of prevention is also neither spontaneous nor linear. Prevention is rarely a moment in time and never a guarantee of future outcomes. It is not a prediction.
To the contrary, prevention is about observing concerning behaviors or suspicious activities, assessing the potential for those activities to lead to violence and reporting information to local security officials. This observe, assess, report methodology has been used to great success in Federal antiterrorism training and awareness programs, and offers enterprises the best chance of disrupting a potential attacker’s plans and preventing violence.
The Value of One Report
One of the most notable examples of an individual report prevented a mass casualty attack from happening was the prevention and disruption of the 2007 Fort Dix terrorist attack by six self-radicalized terrorists. The group had planned to use assault rifles and grenades to attack soldiers at the New Jersey Army base. They practiced and rehearsed at a shooting range located in the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania, and videotaped their mock assaults and calls for “jihad.” But when the men took the video to a store to be copied onto a DVD, an alert store clerk notified the FBI.
In 2014, one alert citizen in Waseca, Minnesota, helped prevent a mass school shooting. Chelsie Schellhas was washing dishes one evening when she looked out her kitchen window and noticed a teenage boy walking toward a nearby commercial storage facility. He appeared to be trying to remain unnoticed, walking through puddles instead of on the more exposed, dry areas of a nearby road. He was carrying a shopping bag and when he reached the storage unit, he appeared to have difficulty opening the door.
As far as Schellhas was concerned, the boy’s activity just “didn’t look right.” So she called the police. When officers arrived on the scene, they discovered six pressure cooker bombs, multiple rifles and handguns, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. The teenager had spent the previous 10 months preparing for what would have been an unspeakable school massacre.3 But countless lives were saved because one person saw something that just didn’t look right and reported her suspicions to local police.
Often those things that ‘just don’t look right’ don’t involve obvious crimes. For example, a few days after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a high school junior in Poughkeepsie, New York, received a series of disturbing text messages from an old friend in Vermont. Something in her gut told her there was cause of concern. So she reported it to her counselor. The information was passed to the Fair Haven, Vermont, police department, and the boy was arrested. In interviews, the boy told officers he had been planning for two years to shoot students and staff at Fair Haven Union High School.
In some cases, there are multiple opportunities to observe suspicious behaviors and report. If we study the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, for example, there were a total of 19 opportunities over a 19 month period to report and potentially disrupt the shooter’s journey to violence.4 From the very first observation of the shooter’s unprovoked rage and fascination with knives and other weapons, to his obsession with writing about violence, at least one instance of suicidal ideation, and even his pre-attack activities on the day of the shooting, there were ample opportunities for students, teachers and staff to report information that may have ultimately prevented him from carrying out his attack.
The following chart outlines the many missed opportunities for intervention and prevention during the Virginia Tech shooter’s 19-month journey to violence.
Instinct and The Near Miss
The importance of listening to one’s “gut instinct” when deciding if and when to report something that looks suspicious or concerning cannot be overstated. A 2012 survey conducted by the Department of Homeland Security and the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that most people rely on “their gut instinct” when something in their everyday environment is out of the ordinary.5
“For example, one participant noted that if he saw a backpack left in a park where children play, he would not consider it suspicious because many children have backpacks,” according to the study. “However, if a backpack was left in a more crowded area where fewer children were expected, this would trigger that ‘gut instinct’ that something was not right.”
As one focus group participant said, “In your gut you think about what the consequence would be if I didn’t [report suspicious activity]. If I was really fearful I might be more apt to report. I wouldn’t care if I felt foolish.”
Too often, however, the organizational cultures in which we work and attend school do not sufficiently support or empower community members to report their concerns to people or authorities who can take action and prevent an incident. Community observers often avoid reporting their observations or suspicions out of fear of being labeled a snitch, being wrong or suffering reprisals from individuals or the institution.
Overcoming these fears, however, is absolutely critical to prevention. And that can only be done by fostering what the FBI refers to as “a culture of shared responsibility,” as well as providing members of the community with a tool that empowers reporting, including the ability to do so anonymously.
Co-founded by Kristina Anderson, the most injured survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, LiveSafe enables business enterprises and college campuses to leverage the safety and security observations of their employees. It transforms employees and students into mobile human sensors capable of delivering actionable intelligence on emerging threats.
The heart of the LiveSafe Platform is an easy-to-use, intuitive mobile app that lives on the one thing that almost everybody has on their person at almost all times — the smartphone. The app can be configured to your organization’s particular needs. It allows an organization’s user base to send and receive important security and safety information.
But most important of all, it provides users the ability to remain anonymous. Maintaining anonymity has historically been one of the biggest obstacles to increasing engagement in anti-terrorism reporting programs. LiveSafe provides that option, removing a major barrier to increased engagement.
Having the LiveSafe App tied back to your local organization, company or university also ensures two-way communications between you and the local security officials tasked with maintaining your safety. As a LiveSafe user, you can receive broadcast notifications from your local security operations center and even engage in 1-to-1 communications during incidents or observations.
Self-service tools, like a safety map and clickable resources, enable users to take control of their personal safety in everyday situations and during high-risk scenarios. Heading out on your own this weekend? The SafeWalk feature allows LiveSafe users to invite friends to virtually accompany them to their destination, ensuring that you get to where you are going safely.
All of this grassroots risk reporting is intelligently routed to the appropriate security officials in your organization. From tips supported by photos, videos and location data, to broadcast alert messaging that can be filtered to specific organizational subgroups or even custom geofenced areas on the dashboard map, the LiveSafe Command and Control Dashboard enables two-way risk intelligence sharing in a way that moves organizations from a posture of reaction to one of prevention. And in the case of a natural disaster or an incident beyond your control, the Check-in feature provides the ability to quickly and easily ascertain the safety status of your LiveSafe-enabled employees.
Community-sourced intelligence that can shift an organization’s security posture from reaction to prevention is now a reality with LiveSafe. We all have a role to play in preventing terrorist attacks from happening. And now we all have a way to make a difference.
About Dan: Dan Verton is a Homeland Security Subject Matter Expert & Content Writer at LiveSafe. He is also an award-winning journalist, former military intelligence officer, and author of Left of Boom: The Citizen’s Guide to Detecting and Preventing Terrorist Attacks.
1 “Lessons Learned from Averted Acts of School Violence,” Campus Safety, July 2, 2018. https://www.campussafetymagazine.com/safety/averted-school-violence/
2 “Averted School Violence Project, Chief Dean Esserman (Ret.), 2018,” Police Foundation. https://www.asvnearmiss.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Averted-School-Violence-Project-Chief-Dean-Esserman-Police-Foundation-2018.pdf
3 Pat Pheifer, “Waseca Teen Accused in School Shooting Plot had been Planning for Months,” Star Tribune, May 10, 2014, http://www.startribune.com/local/257505631.html
4 “Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech, Addendum to the Report of the Review Panel,” November 2009. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/prevail/docs/April16ReportRev20091204.pdf
5 “Improving the Public’s Awareness and Reporting of Suspicious Activity,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, February 2010. https://www.assumption.edu/sites/default/files/public_safety/SEE%20SOMETHING%20SAY%20SOMETHING.pdf