School Climate & Safety

All Threats Aren’t Equal, FBI Cautions

By Jessica Portner — September 13, 2000 6 min read
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The FBI’s new guide to helping schools assess threats of violence by students received mixed reviews last week from school officials, some of whom welcomed any assistance they can get in keeping their buildings safe, while others voiced concern that the recommendations could be used irresponsibly.

The report repeatedly warns educators not to try to “profile” students who might pose a danger by matching them up with a list of predetermined characteristics. It urges school officials to be alert, however, to students who are “preoccupied with themes of violence,” familiar with weapons, and ostracized by their peers.

For More Information

“The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective” is available online from the FBI. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The main purpose of the 36-page report was to provide educators with a tool for gauging the gravity of violent threats.

“The use of this assessment will help school administrators deal with high-risk threats, which is a serious concern,” Thomas J. Picard, the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said at a news conference held here last week to release the report. He added that the bureau undertook the report on its own initiative.

But Jennifer Kitson, a school psychologist for the Hays, Kan., school district, said she was worried that the guide “could be misused.”

“I am concerned about finger-pointing and marking individual students without having a plan to support them,” said Ms. Kitson, who read the guide, titled “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective,” after it was posted on the FBI’s Web site Sept. 6.

The guide’s “threat assessment protocol"—a modified version of a system often used by the bureau to detect serial killers and terrorists—divides students’ threats into four categories.

A direct threat—the most serious—describes a specific act against a specific target, such as “I am going to place a bomb in the school gym.” An indirect threat tends to be more vague, as in “the gym could explode.” A veiled threat is a hint at violence in which the interpretation is often left to the victim. A conditional threat resembles extortion, such as “If you don’t pay me one million dollars, I will place a bomb in the school.”

The report recommends that school officials also examine whether the threat can reasonably be carried out and whether there is any clear motivation for the student’s destructive intentions.

Student threats of violence reached a crescendo after the Columbine High School shootings in Jefferson County, Colo., that left 13 students and a teacher dead in April of last year. In the four weeks following the massacre, more than 350 incidents in which students threatened violence against their schools or classmates were reported by the news media nationwide. (“Arrests Top 350 in Threats, Bomb Scares,” May 26, 1999.)

Character Traits

Beyond explaining how to assess threats, the FBI report also identifies risk factors commonly found among the perpetrators of school violence in the 18 shooting cases the researchers reviewed over the past two years.

Certain personality and behavioral traits found among the student gunmen include alienation, narcissism, depression, inappropriate humor, drug use, unmonitored media and Internet use, and access to weapons, the report says. Students who are more at risk to commit violent acts are often easily angered, have had a failed relationship, or display delusions of grandeur, it adds.

But FBI officials stressed at last week’s news conference that the guide, which took into account recommendations from 160 educators, teachers, and mental-health experts who gathered at a symposium here last summer, was not meant as a checklist to single out a potential Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, the two students who unleashed the Columbine attack before turning their guns on themselves.

“This is not a profile of a school shooter. It simply does not exist,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, a special agent at the bureau’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and the author of the report.

Jamon H. Kent, the superintendent of the Springfield, Ore., public schools, who participated in the news conference, said the FBI report might not have stopped a boy from killing two classmates at Thurston High School there in May 1998. But he said it might have prodded administrators to pay closer attention to the boy, who killed his parents as well.

“I welcome these reports because they help us see how we can best turn students around,” Mr. Kent said.

But some mental-health experts criticized the report, saying its list of personality traits is tantamount to a profile.

“The report says three times, ‘This is not a profile,’ and then they go and give you a profile,” said William Pollack, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School who has written several books about adolescent mental health.

Mr. Pollack, who served as a consultant on a Secret Service guide on school violence that is to be released this fall, said the FBI report also fails to take into account how gender differences play into violent behavior.

“Boys show depression and express acts of bravado in ways different from girls,” he said. “And unless you understand the gender as one factor, then you may misunderstand what’s being communicated to you, and boys will be scapegoated.”

And Mr. Pollack questioned the underlying research itself, saying the sample size of 18 school shooting cases was too small to support any real conclusions about patterns of dangerous student behavior. The Secret Service guide, he said, will examine as many as 40 to 50 school shooting cases in more depth.

Kevin Dwyer, a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists, advised the FBI on its report, but said he remains concerned that without proper training in how to use such guides, principals and teachers might judge students based on their own prejudices.

“I am concerned about who is going to be the person in charge of this who makes these determinations,” he said.

Mr. Dwyer added that school-based mental-health workers, who he says are best equipped to assess the seriousness of student threats, are in short supply, with a national average of about one to every 1,500 students.

Second Nature

Vincent Schiraldi, the president of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, added that many of the report’s recommendations are second nature to school officials.

“For many people, this is intuitive,” Mr. Schiraldi said. “Your basic school psychologist is already going to worry about a kid that fixates on the devil.”

Mr. Schiraldi also questioned whether such reports are necessary, considering how rarely school shootings occur. In the 1999 Justice Policy Institute report “School House Hype,” Mr. Schiraldi said that students were more likely to get hit by lightning than killed at school.

The Department of Education reported a 40 percent decline in school- associated violent deaths between the 1997-98 and 1998-99 school years, from 43 to 26.

Michael Carr, the spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that while educators are well aware of the potential for violence on their campuses, the FBI guide may help keep principals alert to the dangers. “They might not blow something off that they hear in the hallway now,” he said.

And Mr. Kent, the Oregon superintendent, said he plans to hold trainings for his staff members based on the guide. He added that he would welcome any tools that government agencies can offer if they help to prevent another crime scene at a school.

“The old ways don’t work,” Mr. Kent said. “We have to put on our radar screen what kids we are dealing with.”

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