School Climate & Safety

School Shooting Plot Foiled in California; Four Students Arrested

By Evie Blad — October 05, 2015 2 min read
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Four California high school students were arrested after law enforcement officials discovered the early stages of a detailed school shooting plan, authorities announced this weekend.

The plot, which targeted staff and students at Summerville High School in Tuolumne, Calif., was discovered after students overheard three of the suspects discussing their plans at school and reported the conversation to a teacher, the Modesto Bee reports. School officials called Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele last week, a day before a man shot and killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., he said at a press conference Saturday.

Mele said “the plot was detailed, and included a list of victims, locations and methods for the attack,” the Bee reports. Authorities did not find weapons, but they determined the students, all boys, were seeking to obtain them. After investigators carried out search warrants, suspects confessed to their plans, Mele said.

“They were going to come on campus and shoot and kill as many people as possible on the campus,” Mele said. “It is particularly unsettling when our most precious assets—which are our students, their teachers— are targets for violence.”

The students have not yet been charged.

What can educators learn from the foiled school shooting plot?

That the threat was found to be valid after students and educators quickly responded to their concerns underscores something school safety experts have emphasized in recent years: Many school attackers “leak” their plans to their peers in advance, providing opportunities to intervene. Schools can promote safety by creating supportive climates where students feel comfortable reporting concerns to trusted adults, experts say.

As I wrote in 2014, psychologists say the narrative that school shooters “just snapped” is false. From that post:

That idea of “leakage” has motivated many states and school systems to create advanced anonymous reporting systems that allow youth to report suspicious behavior by their peers. The operators of a tipline in Colorado, which was started after the school shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, believe that system has helped dismantle the plans of multiple would-be school shooters. In a report completed by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center in 2002, the agency analyzed 37 school attacks that occurred between 1974 and 2000. It 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.

As discussions of gun laws heat up in the wake of the Oregon shooting, education research organizations have called for more study of violence in schools and on college campuses. The American Educational Research Association and the Association for the Study of Higher Education released this statement Monday:

We call on the education research community to further commit itself to expanding the body of research on school safety and climate at the K-12 level and extending it to higher education. Developing and promoting research-based programs and policies to reduce the risk of violence on college campuses also needs to be a major focus of education research. To foster the advancement of this research agenda, AERA and ASHE will convene a special joint forum at the AERA Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., in April 2016. We recognize our responsibility to educate diverse publics in ways that can truly reduce violence in society.

What do you think? Do students feel comfortable sharing concerns with adults at school? In an age group prone to hyperbole and dramatic speech, can students tell the difference between empty words and real threats?

Related reading on school shootings and school violence:

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