School Climate & Safety

Most School Shooters Showed Many Warning Signs, Secret Service Report Finds

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 07, 2019 5 min read
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Most of the violent attacks in schools over the past decade were committed by students who telegraphed their intentions beforehand—and could have been prevented, a new report from the U.S. Secret Service concludes.

Most of those students were motivated by a specific grievance, and every single one was experiencing extreme stress. But there remains significant variation among the perpetrators, and schools should use a comprehensive analysis to detect true threats rather than trying to profile students, the report says.

The report, released Nov. 7 by the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, analyzes 41 violent incidents in schools between 2008 and 2017. The devastating school shootings in 2018 in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, helped prompt the study, but were not included in the report.

The analysis generally confirms the conclusions of the agency’s influential 2002 publication on school safety, which said checklists of characteristics supposedly common to school shooters were not helpful in preventing violence.

Instead, that earlier study popularized the idea of threat assessment, in which teams of educators, administrators, counselors, and school resource officers compile academic, behavioral, and other evidence to decide whether a student who’s made a threat is acting out or actually poses one.

“The implications for schools seems to be the same,” including using those teams to triage threats, said Anthony Petrosino, a school safety expert and director of the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center. Schools should also consider broader strategies such as trying to connect every youth to at least one caring adult in the school, he added.

Still, some areas of emphasis in the report differ from the past—most notably its attention to the attackers’ social and emotional health.

The analysis comes as school safety remains a top issue for school districts—and a contested one. Many districts have struggled with two, often competing philosophies: one, to “harden” schools through physical measures and school police, which nearly half of all schools now employ; or two, to invest in efforts to improve school climate, such as through restorative justice programs favored by civil rights groups who note that discipline policies and the presence of school police too often lead to the disproportionate punishment of black students and students with disabilities.

On that tension, the report effectively punts: “Schools should implement a threat assessment process in conjunction with the most appropriate physical security measures as determined by the school and its communities,” it states.

Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed in the Parkland shooting, said he hoped the report could help bridge those debates.

It’s not about figuring out, ‘Boy this student is a threat, let’s get law enforcement involved,’ he said. “That’s the perception a lot of educators have and it couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Social and Mental Factors

Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • Secondary schools were the most frequently targeted. Just 2 percent of the incidents occurred at elementary schools, while 75 percent occurred at high schools.
  • Attackers were usually white and they were overwhelmingly male. Mirroring the characteristics of U.S. mass shootings in general, 83 percent of the school attacks were carried out by males and 62 percent of the attackers were white.
  • Police presence varied. Nearly half of the schools with incidents employed at least one full-time school resource officer.
  • Guns were the most often used weapon. In what’s sure to add fuel to the gun-violence debate, of the 25 attacks involving firearms, 19 of the attackers obtained firearms from the home of a parent or relative. Nearly all the other attackers used knives.
  • Most attackers had a grievance. At 83 percent, grievances were the perpetrators’ most common motivation, usually against peers. Forty one percent were suicidal, and 37 percent had a desire to kill. (Attackers had multiple motivations.)
  • Many attackers had a plan. Half the attackers engaged in observable planning of their attacks, like researching weapons, documenting their plans, trying to recruit others, or packing a bag with weapons.

An eye-opening section of the report likely to kick up debate also details the combination of social, emotional, and behavioral factors that may have been linked to the attacks.

At least 40 percent of perpetrators had a mental-health diagnosis; 54 percent had received some kind of mental-health treatment; 80 percent had been bullied; and all but two came from homes with adverse childhood experiences, such as an incarcerated parent, abuse, or financial difficulty.

And every single attacker had faced high levels of stress from social, family, or academic problems. Almost three-quarters also had been disciplined at school within five years of the attack.

Those issues will resonate in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Some families of the slain students there have blamed the tragedy in part on the district’s alleged failure to act on a record of the shooter’s mental-health problems, and its decision to put him in a program meant as an alternative to suspension and expulsion.

No Guarantee

The report also noted that four attackers had been referred to their school’s threat-assessment team, three of them within a year of the incident. In some cases, the team didn’t review all the available data, and in one case, a team considered a student low risk despite several troubling pieces of data.

That’s a good reminder that risk-mitigation approaches shown to be effective, like threat assessment, aren’t foolproof, and they depend on good implementation to work.

Petty said threat assessments teams need to be meeting regularly. That way they can be comfortable with each other, with the threat assessment process, and be willing to share pieces of relevant information when a threat occurs.

“My guess is where these are failing, you’ll find threat teams that are meeting only when there’s an identified threat. Where they’re working, they’re meeting on a regular basis,” he said.

Many states have considered or passed legislation requiring schools to conduct threat assessments since the Parkland incident, though there is considerable variation in their policies.

Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, and Texas required all schools to begin it in the 2019-20 school year. Washington state schools will join them in 2020-21.

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Most School Shooters Gave Many Warning Signs, Report Says

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