School Climate & Safety

Foiled School Bomb Plot Demonstrates Need for Prevention Efforts

By Evie Blad — May 02, 2014 3 min read
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Police in Waseca, Minn. say they halted a 17-year-old student’s plans to kill his family and bomb his school after a 911 caller reported seeing the boy suspiciously entering a storage unit while wearing a backpack this week.

The events fit a profile of school violence emphasized by many safety experts—at least one person is usually aware of plans for school attacks or troubling behavior in advance. And while in-school security measures, like armed staff, typically get a majority of the coverage, experts say strong and effective prevention and reporting programs are also necessary tools for safety efforts.

After searching John David LaDue’s home and the search locker, police found an extensive cache of explosive chemicals, gun powder, pressure cookers, and ball bearings, Capt. Kris Markeson said in a press conference.

In interviews, LaDue said he had planted previously discovered explosives on the playground of the town’s elementary school to test his plan, which involved killing his family and lighting a fire on the other side of town to distract police while he traveled to the town’s junior/senior high school, where he planned to shoot a school resource officer and set off bombs while waiting to be killed by police. The district has stepped up security efforts and brought in counselors to help students process the events, town officials said in the press conference.

Officials said they believed LaDue was serious about his plans and capable of carrying them out. He has been charged with four counts of attempted first-degree murder, six counts of possessing explosive devices, and two counts of first-degree criminal damage to property.

“Today has been both a difficult and disturbing day, and a day of gratitude. Yet it is not a tragic day, and that fact should be celebrated ...” Waseca Superintendent Thomas Lee said. “The information that has been revealed in court documents indicates that we have escaped what could have been a horrific experience. We can either believe that this occurred as a result of a lucky break or, as I do, choose to believe that God was looking out for all of us ... Concurrently, we are grateful for the person who called the police for what they believed to be ‘suspicious behavior.’ Their willingness to be vigilant and to look out for the community should be commended by all.”

How common is it that a school attackers are stopped in their tracks? That’s a really difficult thing to quantify. For one, there’s no national measure that tracks foiled school plans. For another, school social workers, psychologists, and concerned teachers are working every day to build meaningful relationships with students so that unmet mental health needs and other contributing factors to violence don’t lead to harm of self or others.

A 2002 report by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, prepared after the agency analyzed 37 school attacks that occurred between 1974 and 2000, concluded that attackers in 31 of those events had told at least one person about their plans beforehand. In 22 cases, two or more people knew about the planned attack in advance, the study concluded. In nearly all cases, those peers were classmates, siblings, and friends of the attackers, it said.

“A friend or schoolmate may be the first person to hear that a student is thinking about or planning to harm someone,” the Secret Service report said. “Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, those who have information about a potential incident of targeted school violence may not alert an adult on their own.”

And, in the case of Waseca, a vigilant community member recognized something wasn’t right at that storage unit.

In February, I wrote about states’ efforts to create or improve anonymous reporting systems that allow young people to express concerns about issues ranging from bullying to suicidal peers to fear of violence at school.

The creator of Colorado’s Safe2Tell tip line, considered one of the most effective in the country, told me a student once used the system to submit a chat message from an anonymous player in an online video game. Colorado police used the sender’s Internet protocol address to trace the message to a home in Biloxi, Miss., where local authorities later found seven weapons.

You can watch the full press conference about the Waseca arrest below.

Photo: Bombs were allegedly found in March at Hartley Elementary School playground in Waseca, Minn. Authorities said Thursday that they prevented an “unimaginable tragedy” by foiling a teenager’s elaborate plot to kill his family and bomb the junior and senior high school in the southern Minnesota city. —Glen Stubbe/The Star Tribune/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.