School Climate & Safety

Thwarted School Shooting Plans Don’t Get Much Attention. Here’s How That Affects School Safety Debates.

By Evie Blad — March 07, 2018 5 min read
Students are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, after a shooter opened fire on the campus.
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Schools, parents, and law enforcement agencies regularly intervene before would-be shooters attack schools, but those thwarted plans understandably don’t get the same level of coverage as mass shootings. And the resulting imbalance in discussions can affect the debate over how to keep schools safe, school safety experts say.

That’s because focusing largely on successful attacks can make them seem inevitable, turning conversations toward physical safety measures—like security hardware and armed officers meant to minimize damage in the event of a shooting.

But experts say school safety is also about “invisible” prevention measures: intervening with students in crisis before they develop an intent to harm others, creating an environment where students feel safe and comfortable reporting concerns about their peers, and developing systems to respond quickly to threats.

“Although security measures are important, a focus on simply preparing for shootings is insufficient. We need a change in mindset and policy from reaction to prevention,” says an eight-point “Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America,” signed by a group of researchers and advocacy organizations since the Parkland shooting.

A sampling of news coverage shows that prevention efforts are important.

In the time since the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., sparking a new round of debates about gun laws and school security, police and schools around the country have responded to hundreds of copy cat threats. In some cases, police responding to tips from family, teachers, and peers have discovered credible plans and the weapons to carry them out, potentially saving lives. Here are a few examples:

  • An 18-year-old in Vermont pled not guilty to first-degree attempted murder, aggravated assault with a weapon, and two counts of aggravated attempted murder after police said he’d discussed a plan to create “mass casualties” at a high school. They discovered he had a shotgun and ammunition and was reading books about the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the Burlington Free Press reports.
  • An 18-year-old Washington boy was arrested after his grandmother found a school shooting plan in his journal, USA Today reports. Police said they discovered inert grenades in his bedroom along with an AK-47 hidden in a guitar case.
  • Tulsa, Okla., police arrested a man after he had made repeated online threats to attack schools, Fox 23 News reports. Police said they recovered two guns and six magazines filled with ammunition from his home.

School shooters often share their plans in advance.

It’s understandable that thwarted plans don’t get as much attention as actual school attacks. They don’t leave the same wake of pain and loss, and they’re more difficult to track and measure.

But an awareness of effective prevention is important when schools and policymakers debate ways to keep students safe, in part because federal agencies have found that most would-be school shooters “leak” their intentions beforehand.

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.

That’s why Colorado launched an school safety tipline after the Columbine attack. The tipline, credited with helping police intervene in many attacks, became a model for new reporting systems launched after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Groups like Sandy Hook Promise, founded by families of Newtown victims, have worked with experts in threat assessment to develop programs like Say Something, which encourages students to report concerns.

Among the other recommendations in the “Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America” is a call for schools to develop “physically and emotionally safe conditions and positive school environments.” Such efforts not only ensure healthy development and reduce the social isolation that can contribute to harmful student behaviors, but they also help students to trust adults and share concerns, researchers say.

The document also calls for adequate staffing for coordinated school- and community-based mental-health services to assist individuals who may pose harm to others. In the time since the Parkland shooting, national groups that represent school counselors and school psychologists have highlighted their heavy workloads in schools.

The group also recommends lifting legal barriers that prevent educators, law enforcement, and health providers from sharing information about threatening individuals and a national program to train school and community groups in threat assessment—a research-based method of evaluating and responding to threats.

On a federal level, many of the headlines since Parkland have focused on President Donald Trump’s calls to “harden schools” by training and arming some teachers. But lawmakers are also considering proposals with an eye toward prevention. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn and chair of the Senate education committee, plans to introduce the School Safety & Mental Health Services Improvement Act, which would change existing laws to allow schools to hire more counselors and fund violence prevention programs.

Are schools becoming less safe?

Contrary to popular narratives, federal indicators show that schools are not becoming less safe.

The numbers of school-associated violent deaths have not trended upward in the last 20 years. Other forms of student victimization are on a downward trend, and fewer students report fear of harm at school than in previous years, the most recent federal data show.

But several recent large mass shootings, including those at schools, have stoked public concerns. Three of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history have happened in the last year, including Parkland, which ranks eighth.

Further reading on Parkland and school shootings:

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