In 2002, the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education released a report that examined school shootings and attacks from 1974 to 2000 with a focus on “identifying pre-attack behaviors and communications that might be detectable—or 'knowable'—and could help in preventing some future attacks.”
The findings included:
- There is no accurate or useful "profile" of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
- Almost three-quarters of the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others prior to the incident.
- Ninety-eight percent of attackers “experienced or perceived some major loss prior to the attack,” including loss of social status, loss of a loved one or the end of a romantic relationship, or experiencing a major illness (either personally or in a relative).
- Ninety-three percent of attackers planned the attack.
- Over 90 percent of attackers exhibited behavior prior to the attack that the attacker had a plan or was preparing to execute an attack.
- In over 80 percent of school attacks, the attacker told at least one person about his plans. In close to 60 percent of school attacks, the attacker told more than one person about his plans.
In essence, school shooters do not cleanly fit the stereotype many of us have for a school shooter. Many of us assume that most active shooters come from broken families, have poor grades, have a history of suffering from mental illness, secretly develop their plans to attack a school and lack friends.
In fact, most school shooters come from two-parent families, have good grades (only 5 percent of violent students receive failing grades), and only a third of school shooters were characterized as “loners.” This means that two-thirds of shooters have friends and regularly socialize.
Students who plan attacks on their schools are usually not known to have psychiatric issues leading up to the attack. In fact, the Secret Service report explains that “fewer than one-fifth had been diagnosed with [a] mental health or behavior disorder prior to the attack."
The conclusion we can reasonably reach is that the stereotypical profile of a school attacker is a myth. As a community, we need to be ever vigilant for signs and symptoms that could alert us to a student planning an attack. In over 80 percent of school attacks, the attacker told at least one person about his plans. In close to 60 percent of school attacks, the attacker told more than one person about his plans.
This means that about four-fifths of school attacks could be prevented if students, siblings and parents called 911 when they hear about a student planning an attack. It seems incredible, but when most people hear about plans for a school attack, they go into denial. They don’t want to be the one who reports a student, they don’t want to cause the student to “get in trouble”, and they simply don’t want to get involved. In one school shooting, 24 students knew about the attack before it took place!
The most important school shooting prevention tip is to immediately report if you suspect or hear of any plans that a student has to attack a school. If you feel uncomfortable calling 911, you can always request to remain anonymous.
As Montgomery County Police Officer Rebecca Innocenti explains, anyone who suspects an attack on a school should “err on the side of caution and give police a call.” For those who do not feel comfortable calling 911, the non-emergency line for the Montgomery County Police Department is 301-279-8000.
Although there are six full-time police officers in Montgomery County that serve as “school resource officers,” the SROs often cover multiple schools at once. Students, parents or any other concerned party should not wait until they see an SRO to report a planned attack—always immediately call police or tell a school administrator.
Since over 90 percent of school attackers exhibit warning signs, we must be mindful of potential warning signs. Warning signs developed by the FBI in 2011 include:
- Boasts, predictions and subtle threats; stories, essays, poems and pictures; violent fantasies; and interest in violent video games, movies and books.
- Depression, anger, impulsive and uncontrollable behavior.
- Poor coping skills.
- Low frustration tolerance.
- Grudges, lack of resiliency.
- “Us against them” mentality, narcissism.
- Boastfulness about weapons, abusive language.
- Suicidal ideation, wishes of death, desire to kill others.
- Delusions, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts.
- History of physical assault.
- Perpetrator or victim of bullying.
- Substance abuse.
- Rebellion against authority.
- Isolated, withdrawn.
- Chronic or acute fatigue.
Anyone who observes one or more of these signs should immediately report the student to 911 or a school administrator—our only hope of keeping our schools and kids safe is to ensure our community is advised of warning signs and remains actively vigilant. Reporting a student who might be planning an attack could mean the difference between life and death.
For more information on how to survive an active shooter incident, please see my previous post on Patch about active shooters.
Todd Jasper is a federal emergency manager and has been happy to call Chevy Chase home since 2008. His emergency management blog is www.toddjasper.com.