7 takeaways from U.S. Secret Service report on targeted school violence

On Board Online • November 25, 2019

By Eric D. Randall

While "there is no profile of a school attacker," some patterns are evident in attacks between 2008 and 2017, according to the first comprehensive government analysis of school violence since 2002.

Protecting America's Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence analyzes 41 incidents of targeted school violence in the U.S.

The 59-page report was authored by the staff of the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center. The report notes that the agency's expertise in assessing threats grew out of its mission to protect the president of the United States.

Among the 41 attacks, only seven schools (17%) had a system to alert school staff or administrators about student behaviors that were threatening or concerning. The Secret Service recommends all schools use a threat assessment process. In July, the agency released a guide called "Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence."

"Attackers varied in age, gender, race, grade level, academic performance and social characteristics," the report noted. "Rather than focusing on a set of traits or characteristics, a threat assessment process should focus on gathering relevant information about a students' behaviors, situational factors and circumstances to assess the risk of violence or other harmful outcomes."

An ongoing threat assessment program should be conducted in conjunction with "the most appropriate physical security measures as determined by the school and its community," according to the report.

Also recommended: an anonymous reporting mechanism. The report praised statewide anonymous reporting systems such as Safe2TellT Colorado, a state-funded initiative of the Colorado Attorney General's Office.

"Safe2Tell is a statewide, anonymous reporting tool, which accepts tips 24/7 regarding any concern of safety to self or others," the report noted. Every tip is evaluated by Colorado Information Analysis Center, a unit of the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Below are highlights of the report's findings.

1. In retrospect, all school attackers telegraphed their intentions.

All attackers studied exhibited concerning behaviors prior to their attack, and 94% did so at school.

"Many of the 41 attacks described in this report could have been prevented," according the report. "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 two-thirds of cases, at least one prohibited or highly concerning behavior was observed by classmates or adults but was not reported. Examples include threats to cause harm, violent acts, bringing weapons to school and suicidal statements.

"In many of these 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."

On the other hand, many signs were subtle. "These behaviors are seen as being part of a constellation of lower-level behaviors, and may not warrant an immediate safety response . Examples of these behaviors include a depressed or angry mood, conflicts between classmates, and an interest in violent topics."

The findings "highlight the importance of encouraging students, school personnel, and family members to report troubling or concerning behaviors," according to the report. "The threshold for intervention should be low."

2. Schools are most vulnerable after a break in general attendance or the attacker's attendance.

The report said that 41% of attacks took place within the first week following a break in attendance due to the summer break, winter break, a suspension, school holiday, or an absence due to illness or truancy.

"These finding suggest that schools should make concerted efforts to facilitate positive student engagement following discipline, including suspensions and expulsions, and especially within the first week the student returns to school."

A quarter of attacks occurred before the school day began, and half occurred during the morning.

The most common locations of attacks were classrooms and just outside the school. "Other locations included cafeterias, hallways and administrative offices." Less common were attacks in restrooms or locker rooms. One attack was in a gym and one was in a vestibule.

3. Suspending or expelling a potentially violent student may be a mistake.

Most attackers had been subject to discipline at school, and for 20% of attackers, "a disciplinary issue at school was the most recent stressor experienced prior to the attack," the report said.

"An important point for school staff to consider is that punitive measures are not preventative," according to the report. "If a student elicits concern or poses a risk of harm to self or others, removing the student from the school may not always be the safest option. To help in making the determination regarding appropriate discipline, schools should employ disciplinary practices that ensure fairness, transparency with the student and family, and appropriate follow-up."

The report also noted that nearly a third of attackers had prior contact with law enforcement, and 17 percent had prior contact with a School Resource Officer.

4. Access to firearms at home and a fascination with weapons are common elements.

Most attackers - 61% - used firearms, and 39% used knives. "Therefore, a threat assessment should explore if a student has access to any weapons, with a particular focus on weapons access at home."

More than three-quarters of shooters had acquired a firearm from the home of a parent or close relative. The Secret Service noted in bold type that in half of the shootings, "evidence indicates the firearm was either readily accessible or it was not secured in a meaningful way."

Half of attackers had a "fixation or fascination" with violence or weapons, according to the report. "For example, some of the attackers researched past incidents of mass violence, drew figures of dead students, consumed violent or graphic media, completed writing assignments or kept journals referencing violent topics, hurt animals or watched videos of animals being abused, or described themselves as obsessed with weapons."

In one case, a 12-year-old student fatally shot a teacher and wounded two classmates at his middle school, then killed himself. In the months preceding his attack, the attacker conducted internet searches using the following terms: bullying, Top 10 evil children, Super Columbine Massacre Role Playing Game, shoot, guns, revenge, murder, school shooting, killer, hate, and what if Nazis won WW2. The attacker also owned forty-seven first-person shooter video games and had saved photographs of the Columbine shooters on his phone.

5. Most attackers were bullied by their classmates.

According to the report, 80% of the attackers were bullied by their classmates, and the bullying appeared persistent over weeks or months for more than half of the attackers.

While most attackers had multiple motives, 83 percent had settling a grievance as either their primary or secondary motive. "Most frequently, grievances involved classmates (63%) and these peer grievances were usually related to bullying in some way."

While 28 of 31 attackers had experienced bullying, only 12 openly spoke about it, according to the report. "Talking about being bullied" was among "common themes of concerning behaviors" identified by the Secret Service.

"In a few cases, there was evidence that school officials knew about the bullying ... but there was no indication the school responded to address the bullying in any way, or the responses made the bullying worse." For example, a teacher told a 16-year-old to "man up."

6. Many attackers' motives include suicide.

Seventeen attackers, or 41%, had suicide as a primary or secondary motivation. That motive was more common than a desire to kill (37%), to address a romantic disappointment (22%), psychosis (12%) or achieve fame or notoriety (10%).

For instance, "a 16-year-old student intended to commit suicide-by-cop when he stabbed his SRO seven times with a bayonet," according to the report. "The officer struggled with the attacker before fatally shooting him in self-defense. The attacker's final words to the officer were, 'Thank you sir, thank you.'"

7. Parkland holds lessons.

The Secret Service's statistical and behavioral analysis does not include the Feb. 14, 2018 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students were killed and 17 injured. But Parkland is referenced in the first paragraph of the "Implications" section of the report:

Like the February 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., this analysis suggests that many of the 41 attacks described in this report could have been prevented. Like the Parkland attacker, many of the attackers in this study had a history of violent, threatening, and other concerning behavior; prior contact with law enforcement; instability in the home; access to and inappropriate interest in weapons; or issues related to psychological, emotional, or behavioral factors. While every situation is unique and should be treated as such, one common factor across all of these tragedies is that there appears to have been an opportunity to identify and intervene with the attacker before violence occurred.

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