After every school shooting, we ask how the horrific tragedy happened and whether anything could have been done to prevent it. In the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., shooting, it came to light that law-enforcement officials had not followed up on a tip they received in January about accused perpetrator Nikolas Cruz’s concerning behavior. We are not asking the right questions soon enough. Did anyone see warning signs? Could anyone have taken action?
For every tragedy, there are many more instances of averted school violence that don’t make the news beyond the affected school district. The higher ratio of averted vs. successful acts is known as the “near miss” concept. For many years, incident prevention has informed best practices in the reduction of aviation, fire, and medical injuries and fatalities.
That’s why the Police Foundation, a national nonprofit organization with a mission to improve policing through innovation and science, began tracking incidents of averted school violence in a national database. The project began in 2015 and is funded by the National Institute of Justice and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which are both housed in the U.S. Department of Justice. Through careful study and analysis of a sample of averted incidents, the foundation has identified valuable lessons in attack prevention. This work should prompt schools to revise safety policies, procedures, and training to respond more effectively when the threat of an incident arises.
To date, the foundation has collected 51 averted-incident reports over the last year and a half, the majority identified from open-source news and court documents. As three individuals who work closely with the database project, we believe many more incidents go unreported, particularly those that don’t gain public attention or result in criminal prosecution.
By being proactive, contributors can both improve safety in their school district and help to protect other schools across the country."
Not only do the foundation’s experts record averted incidents, anyone who has been involved in a near-miss incident can also enter information anonymously into the database. The good news is that people, especially law-enforcement and school officials, are increasingly doing so. Those reporting an averted incident—defined as a planned violent attack on school grounds prevented before injury or loss of life occurred—can do so at any point after it occurs, even years later. Each report lists information about the school and its security, the averted attack plans and attempted execution, the perpetrator, prevention mechanisms, and lessons learned.
What have we learned that can help prevent school violence? Here are five actions teachers and school leaders can take to improve school safety:
• Train students to monitor and report suspicious behavior. In more than half of the open-source incidents we studied, students were the first to discover another student’s violent plan. Students who hear threats of violence from their classmates—whether in person or on social media—should take them seriously and report them immediately to parents, law enforcement, or school authorities. Potential perpetrators of violence frequently use online platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to discuss their plans or to express disdain for their school or classmates.
Educators and parents should let students know that they must pass along anything that gives them pause, including signs of suicide or depression in a peer, even if they don’t have solid evidence. An indirect reference or a disturbing comment could be a significant warning sign. Adults should also seek to assure students that their privacy will be protected if they make a report, and they will face no personal consequences for acting in good faith.
• Make a staff plan of action for timely communication of incidents to parents. Communication with parents can be difficult to navigate in high-stress situations, but prompt messages about what has happened or is happening are important. This is especially true in today’s world, where messages from students will likely outpace official school communication. Schools need to communicate accurate information to avoid rumors and panic from spreading.
• Develop personal relationships with students. All staff and school resource officers should strive to maintain a comfortable rapport with all students. This allows staff to be aware of students who are bullied or feel excluded and depressed, and may help detect when students are dealing with troubling feelings. In turn, students who feel close to trusted adults in the school may be able to talk with them about their feelings before it’s too late.
• Direct safety concerns through a team for review. Schools should not limit responsibilities of school safety monitoring to one person. School leaders, teachers, and staff that monitor building entrances, as well as school resource officers and other law-enforcement officials, should meet regularly as a case-management team to discuss any reported problems, concerns, and observations. This also includes notifying all school staff when students are suspended or expelled. School staff should be informed of the reasons for the suspension or expulsion to the full extent permitted by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). As a general rule, those students should not be allowed on campus the same day as the suspension or expulsion.
• Develop well-defined and practiced active shooter and emergency plans. Law enforcement should develop active-shooter plans in collaboration with schools. As part of this work, all school administrators, teachers, and staff should be trained in CPR and basic lifesaving skills for traumatic injuries.
As acts of senseless violence continue to ravage our schools, we encourage school administrators, teachers, law-enforcement officials, and mental-health professionals who have been involved in averting an attack to submit their experiences anonymously to our online database. By being proactive, contributors can both improve safety in their school district and help to protect other schools across the country.
In this way, we hope to ask important questions about warning signs and possible interventions. It’s one prong in what should be a multifaceted approach to protecting the lives of our children.