School Climate & Safety

Responding to Student Threats: Schools Wrestle With How to Prevent Violence

By Evie Blad — May 18, 2022 | Updated: June 01, 2022 11 min read
A rifle hangs on display in the window of the West Endicott & Susquehanna Arms Co., Monday, May 16, 2022, where the Buffalo shooting suspect purchased fire arms in Endicott, N.Y.
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Investigations into the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the racist massacre at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery story last month again raise questions about whether anyone—including officials at the accused shooters’ former schools—could have intervened earlier to prevent the attacks.

No details have yet emerged regarding any specific school-related threats by the shooter in Uvalde, where 19 children and two teachers were killed at their school, although the 18-year-old posted an Instagram photo of a hand holding a gun magazine and said in his TikTok profile “Kids be scared.”

In Buffalo, where 10 people were killed, educators referred the shooting suspect to police last year after he made a general threat. But he was still able to purchase guns and carefully plot his attack, police said.

It can be extremely complicated for teachers and administrators to identify and respond to concerns of violence and student threats, especially when those threats are not specific, experts on school safety and mass shootings told Education Week.

“It’s really an unfortunate position that we’ve put schools in,” said Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University, speaking after the Buffalo shooting. “I’ve interviewed principals who say, ‘I make the call [about how to respond to concerning student behavior] and then I lay in bed at night and wonder if it’s the right one.’”

Buffalo suspect showed warning signs at school

Police say the Buffalo suspect, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, posted a 180-page white supremacist screed online and drove more than three hours to carry out the attack, killing 10 people in a predominantly Black neighborhood Saturday.

As a senior at Susquehanna Valley High School, in Conklin, N.Y., in June 2021, Gendron responded to a question about his post-graduation plans by saying he wanted to carry out a “murder-suicide,” the FBI confirmed to reporters May 16.

School officials called New York State Police, who referred the student to a hospital for a mental health evaluation, officials said. He was released after a day and a half, and had no further contact with police.

Months later, in pandemic-fueled isolation, he carefully planned the rampage. Online postings reveal the suspect also considered attacking an elementary school he believed to enroll mostly Black students, NBC News reported.

In a May 16 letter to parents , Susquehanna Valley School District Superintendent Roland Doig said schools would offer on-site counseling for students and planned to spend time “reestablishing normalcy to the learning environment and reassuring students that they should feel safe in our schools.”
The district’s 1,400 students are mostly white.

“As I am sure you are aware, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies are investigating this horrific shooting,” Doig wrote. “While we can’t comment on the process or findings, the district is cooperating with the ongoing investigation.”

The 18-year-old Uvalde gunman, Salvador Ramos, legally purchased his weapons, had no known criminal record and no record of diagnosed mental health conditions, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said. And, while experts say most attackers “leak” their intentions to friends and family beforehand, the only warning signs police had identified were three online posts the suspect made 30 minutes before the attack, he said.

The Washington Post reported that the gunman had posted menacing messages and threatened girls on an app called Yubo, but apparently none had ever been seen by parents, teachers, or local students.

Tools for addressing concerning student behavior and threats

Questions about prevention have been raised after countless school shootings.

In Parkland, Fla., for example, the FBI failed to respond to a tip about the gunman, who later killed 17 people at his former high school in February 2018.

In August 2019, a 24-year-old man opened fire in a Dayton, Ohio, entertainment district, killing nine people, including his own sister, in less than a minute before police shot and killed him. Later that day, his classmates told reporters he’d been disciplined for making threats in high school.

School safety experts say schools are often positioned to flag concerns and warning signs because they have regular contact with students, and they can serve as a conduit that connects them to social services and other government agencies. But they are often ill-equipped to do so.

New York state has two policies that experts on school shootings say are meant to help school officials intervene before shootings occur.

State law requires school districts to create comprehensive safety plans that include policies “for responding to implied or direct threats of violence by students ... including threats by students against themselves.”

New York is also one of 19 states that have so-called red flag laws, which allow family and law enforcement officials to ask a judge to issue an “extreme risk protection order,” suspending a person’s access to firearms if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others. In 2019, the state modified that law to allow educators to report students and file for such orders. While including educators as possible reporters makes New York’s policy unusual, federal officials included school officials in model language other states can use to develop their own red flag laws.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said that state officials plan to investigate why the Buffalo shooting suspect wasn’t flagged under the state’s red flag law, despite the threat his school reported to police.

School officials responded to the threat under one of the options in the district’s plan, which includes contacting law enforcement. Police referred the suspect for an evaluation that could have sparked a protection order, Hochul told WKSE Radio in Buffalo, but evaluators released him when they determined his threat wasn’t specific or actionable, she said.

“There was nothing that flagged that he wouldn’t be able to—from that encounter, at the time—be able to go into a store and purchase a gun,” Hochul said. “Now, we need to question that, as well. There’s a lot of layers here that we need to get to the bottom of and find out if changes need to be made.”

Experts call for effective threat assessment and student supports

Speaking in the wake of the Buffalo shooting, Dewey Cornell, director of the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia, said it has shined a spotlight on how school districts’ safety efforts, generally designed to prevent attacks within their own buildings, can help address concerning student behavior that may later spill out into the community.

Cornell’s work focuses on a research-based model of threat assessment, through which teams of school personnel evaluate and respond to concerns a student may be isolated, in need of help, or may pose a threat to themselves or others.

That would have been difficult for the suspect’s school to do in this case, Cornell said, because his apparent threat came so close to graduation.

At any time of year, it can be difficult for educators to determine how to respond to a student threat, and law enforcement often seems like a logical option, Cornell said, speaking about schools more generally.

“It’s a common practice among school administrators who say, ‘Well, if I turn this over to the police, it’s no longer on my plate,’” Cornell said.

But, even if student behavior and speech are concerning, police are limited in how they can intervene, he said.

“We have an involuntary commitment system that is focused on a very narrow band of individuals,” who make specific and immediate threats, Cornell said.

Concerns about students’ civil rights

As states often follow high-profile school shootings with waves of new laws designed to prevent them, some civil rights advocates frequently warn that prevention efforts can go too far—potentially stigmatizing students or threatening their free speech rights or access to education.

A 2018 investigation by the Portland Oregonian newspaper detailed a family’s frustrating experience after their son, who is on the autism spectrum, was flagged as a potential threat at school. The family struggled to learn about the nature of the complaint and how to remedy educators’ concerns, the paper reported. Though it was not legally required to do so, the family voluntarily surrendered its guns during the process.

A 2019 investigation by Education Week’s Benjamin Herold detailed how schools are using extensive digital surveillance systems to track students’ online behavior, often flagging innocent social media posts made on home computers, phones, and other devices as warning signs of potential harm.

“It’s similar to post-9/11,” Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a lawyer with the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school, told Education Week at the time. “There is an understandable instinct to do whatever you can to stop the next horrible thing from happening. But the solution doesn’t solve the problem, and it creates new issues of its own.”

In the aftermath of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., schools passed “zero-tolerance” policies that promised to expel students for bringing weapons to school. But those policies became more ambiguous over time, leading to students being disciplined in an overly punitive way for minor offenses, or even for nibbling a piece of food into the shape of a gun at lunch time.

Time for a broader focus?

As the term “threat assessment” has become more common, schools have applied it to widely varying policies, some of which aren’t evidence-based, Cornell said.

For example, threat assessment protocols that focus on punitive measures or identifying students that are certain to commit violence are too narrow, Cornell said. Rather, schools should use warning signs, like social isolation and concerning statements, as an opportunity to provide help for any student who needs it, whether or not they have the means to commit an attack.

“People think that threat assessment is a way to predict violence,” Cornell said. “But that’s something that threat assessment experts realize we can’t do.”

He compared threat assessment to cancer prevention. Health officials warn about unhealthy behaviors that can lead to cancer, like smoking, even if they are not certain who will later be diagnosed with the disease, Cornell said.

In the same way, schools can address broader concerns that students need support.

“I intervene because of that immediate need,” he said.Students who are making these kind of threats to harm other people or who think this is a good idea, that’s an indication that they need some education and assistance and support.”

A pipeline of opportunities to intervene

Contrary to popular assumptions, mass shooters often don’t have specific diagnosed mental health conditions, researchers have found.

Assessments by the U.S. Secret Service have found school shooters, and mass shooters more generally, are often suicidal, and they often “leak” their intentions beforehand, telling family and friends they intend to attack.

That moment can be a key time to intervene, said Peterson, of Hamline University.

Even law enforcement officials vary in their responses to concerning behavior, she said.

In a December 2021 opinion essay for Education Week, Peterson and two co-researchers detailed a survey in which they asked law enforcement officials to rate the severity of fictitious scenarios on a scale of 1 to 10.

One example: “A teacher at Oak Creek Elementary finds a student’s drawing of stick figures portraying a school shooting in a trash can.”

In that scenario, 62 percent of law enforcement officials rated the threat as low, between 1 and 3 on the 10-point scale, despite its similarity to warning signs left by a student gunman before an actual attack at a Michigan school the previous year, the researchers said. Just 27 out of 229 respondents scored it 8 or higher.

After a student makes a non-specific threat, there are options to intervene beyond calling law enforcement, Peterson said.Students who make such statements are often making “a cry for help” that they need attention or support.

But schools are stretched thin, Peterson said. Many don’t employ enough counselors and many don’t have school psychologists. Policies on how to respond are often unclear, and the research is not conclusive about how to handle sometimes ambiguous situations.

“It comes down to what are the tools in your toolbelt that you have to respond?” Peterson said. “The police can only respond to a very specified threat. They can’t charge people for thoughts.”

With the current patchwork of providers, community programs, and varying school resources, “it’s sort of nobody’s job to say, ‘Okay, there’s not an emergency right now, this very second, but it probably will be in six months if we don’t actually build some sort of long-term follow up,” she said.

The factors that lead students to make a “cry for help” can spiral into substantiated plans for violence, Peterson said. The Buffalo suspect’s classmates, for example, told New York Times reporters that he preferred to learn online and had been exhibiting anti-social behavior. In that isolation, he became radicalized online, reading white supremacist websites and eventually developing detailed plans, NBC News reported after reviewing his history on online message boards.

Peterson favors a “slight rebrand,” referring to school-based threat assessment teams as “crisis response teams” instead. The aim, she said, is to do away with the word “threat,” which gives people the impression of a narrow, disciplinary focus.

“The word threat is the wrong word,” she said. “It makes it seem like we are hunting for these shooters. The reality is we are looking for these kids who need help.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2022 edition of Education Week as Responding to Student Threats: Schools Wrestle With How to Prevent Violence

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