School Climate & Safety

FBI ‘Profiling’ Help Worries Educators

By Linda Jacobson — October 06, 1999 8 min read
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In the aftermath of the deadliest school shooting in American history, the FBI is poised to weigh in on helping educators tighten up security and identify the traits that can lead students to violence. But some of the very people the federal agency intends to assist are troubled by the bureau’s involvement and the techniques it employs to detect potential criminals.

At issue are two reports the Federal Bureau of Investigation is preparing. The first, to be published this fall, is based on the bureau’s review of at least 18 school shooting incidents and will identify behavior that could be considered threatening.

The project was already under way when the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado took place this past April, leaving 15 dead, including the two student gunmen.

At that point, officials decided that the bureau could “take a leadership role in looking at these cases in a way that no other agency could,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Va., and an author of the first report.

The second report, due out early next year, will focus on safety strategies that schools and local police departments have found to be effective.

The reports are being written with the counsel of more than 200 school officials, local law-enforcement officers, psychologists, and other professionals who attended two conferences on school violence that the FBI sponsored.

Some experts are especially concerned over references they have heard to the FBI’s use of profiling--an investigative technique most often associated with tracking down serial killers.

“The FBI is the wrong group to call in,” said Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, the director of the division of public-health practice at Harvard University and an expert on youth violence. “It is important for schools to recognize early-warning signs, but not for the purpose of a criminal label.”

Kevin Dwyer, the president of the National Association of School Psychologists, said he was particularly alarmed by an article in last month’s issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

Included in an article on school violence is a box that lists several characteristics of those who commit such offenses, under the headline “Offender Profile.” The list is based on the FBI’s review of six school shootings.

While the introduction says that such signs by themselves might not describe a potentially violent student, the list includes having parental troubles, disliking popular students, experiencing a precipitating event such as a failed romance, and listening to songs that encourage violence.

“Many of the things they listed are so common among youngsters,” Mr. Dwyer said.

‘No Definitive Profile’

But Special Agent Stephen R. Band, the chief of the behavioral-science unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, said that the list, which he co-wrote, was not intended to be used as a way to classify individual students.

“That is anecdotal information. It doesn’t mean that every kid who has a characteristic on that list is going to be a shooter,” he said. “There is no definitive profile of a child who is going to do this.”

The title for the list might have been inappropriate, he added, and the bureau itself has replaced the term “profiling” with “criminal- investigative analysis.”

Marie Dyson, also a supervisory special agent who co-wrote the first of the FBI reports, said a lot of misinformation was being spread, by the news media and others, about the purported profile of a school shooter.

One common conclusion is that such students are loners and introverts, but the bureau didn’t find that to be true in its research, she said. The FBI also found that students who had committed those crimes had studied past school shootings with the intention of going even further. “It fueled their fires,” Ms. Dyson said.

Assessing the Threat

The subject of such television fare as “Millennium” and “Profiler” and the Academy- Award-winning film “Silence of the Lambs,” this type of investigation is often misunderstood, said Roger L. Depue, a former chief of the FBI’s behavioral-science unit. He is the founder of the Academy Group in Manassas, Va., a consulting company made up of former FBI and Secret Service agents.

One type of profiling, he explained, refers to the clues and evidence that investigators gather from the scene of a violent crime to develop a profile of an unknown suspect.

Another meaning of the term, he said, is to become familiar with the traits of someone who is most likely to commit a certain kind of crime. In a school setting, Mr. Depue said, those characteristics “are more accurately called indicators or flags, instead of a specific personality profile.”

He also observed that there are often several profiles of a person prone to violence, not just one.

FBI officials also want teachers, school administrators, and parents to become more aware of what they call “leakage.” That term means that most of the students who have committed such acts had talked about their intentions before the shootings.

In addition to identifying common behaviors of students who have turned violent, the first of the forthcoming FBI reports is intended to educate teachers and administrators on what the bureau calls “threat assessment"--the area of expertise for the researchers in Ms. O’Toole’s unit.

“Not all threats are high-level threats,” she said. “A lot of students have characteristics that on a bad-hair day seem threatening.”

Along with describing varying levels of threat, she said, the report will suggest actions for schools to take. For example, if it’s a “low-level threat,” all that might be needed is a conversation with the student or the parents, Ms. O’Toole said.

Still, some education experts worry that whatever the FBI releases could be misused.

William Modzeleski, the director of the U.S Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, noted that adolescent behavior is hard to predict in any case, and that school officials run the risk of misidentifying a student as potentially violent. “We are dealing with a population that has a lot of quirks,” he said.

Adolescents are struggling with independence and with people in authority, said Mr. Dwyer of the school psychologists’ association.

What he is most concerned about, though, is whom the FBI will distribute its information to and how it will be used.

“There is no doubt that we have a role to work together,” Mr. Dwyer said, referring to law-enforcement and mental-health experts. “But there is serious doubt whether we want to rely on law-enforcement professionals to teach teachers.”

The FBI’s Role

Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., an information clearinghouse, pointed out that relying on law-enforcement techniques could create legal troubles.

“My view is that embarking on a program of profiling really represents a slippery slope of liability for a school administrator,” he said. “The best strategy for keeping schools safe is having adults who continually monitor, mentor, and support young people.”

FBI officials should “understand the makeup and nature of our educational system,” including its local governance, Mr. Modzeleski of the Education Department said. “We’re not there to tell teachers and school administrators what to do.”

But Mr. Band of the behavioral-science unit argued that the bureau does have a role to play.

“The FBI does have a mission to train local police, and certainly community policing is part of our curriculum,” he said.

Rick Kaufman, a spokesman for the 89,000-student Jefferson County, Colo., district, which includes Columbine High, attended the first meeting in July and said he found it helpful.

Referring to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine gunmen, Mr. Kaufman said: “We are interested in finding out what was making Eric and Dylan click and what pushed them over the edge.” He added that he did not believe the federal agency was overstepping its authority by helping schools become more aware of the risk factors for student violence.

Not a Checklist

Mr. Dwyer said he hoped that whatever the bureau produced would be more similar to a document his association helped publish and distribute to schools last year following the school shooting in Springfield, Ore. Kipland P. Kinkel pleaded guilty last week to murder in the shooting spree that took the lives of two students and injured more than 20.

Called “Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools,” the report by the psychologists’ group lists several signs that a child or teenager may be on a path to using violence-- social withdrawal, excessive feelings of rejection, uncontrolled anger, bullying behavior, and poor academic performance.

But the guide also warns educators against “inappropriately labeling or stigmatizing individual students because they appear to fit a specific profile or set of early-warning indicators.”

It could even be harmful, the guide says, “to use the early-warning signs as a checklist against which to match individual children.”

The FBI’s Ms. O’Toole agrees that it is wrong to think any combination of behaviors predicts future action."There is no way to predict future violence in someone who has never acted out violently,” she said.

Mr. Dwyer and others stressed that schools need to have close ties with mental-health professionals--and even have what Mr. Depue calls a “threat- management group” made up of teachers, administrators, police, mental-health representatives, and perhaps community members--to turn to when they recognize possible warning signs.

Yet overall, the fact that mental-health solutions are even being discussed is progress, Dr. Prothrow-Stith suggested.

“When we were in the first wave of this epidemic, we only went to the police,” she said, referring to earlier school violence that occurred in urban areas. “Now that middle-class America is involved in a more substantial way, we are at least willing to look at mental health. That is definitely the direction that we need to go.”

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