School shooters don't just snap. They plan. And they usually tell a friend or a classmate before they attack, according to the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center in the report, Safe School Initiative: An Interim Report on the Prevention of Targeted Violence in Schools .
The Secret Service report conveys eight preliminary findings from its study of 41 school shooters involved in 37 school attacks since 1974. Some of the key implications for schools based on those findings include breaking down the barriers that inhibit kids from telling an adult about a troubled classmate; gathering information about a potential shooter from the student's classmates and friends; and providing help for troubled kids before they kill.
The agency looked at how the 41 school shooters had planned, thought, and behaved before they committed the violent crime at school. The Secret Service used the same method it has used to study the behavior and thinking of adults who have attacked or tried to attack major U.S. leaders or public figures during the past 50 years.
The Secret Service report is the second federal law enforcement agency to recently share its expertise with educators on how to prevent future school violence. Last month, the FBI released its report, The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective. That report explains how schools can assess a threat based on a student's personality and behavior traits.
"The strongest thing these reports [by the FBI and Secret Service] are saying is that [school attackers] often have a high frequency of leakage," said James Garbarino, a psychologist and national expert on youth violence. "The student's intent [to attack] will leak out somewhere." (Garbarino is the author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, Free Press, 1999.)
"Schools need to have a very rapid, sensitive information-gathering system in order to react quickly to that leakage," Garbarino said. Waiting until the next teachers' meeting to pass on information about a troubled student may be too late, he said.
Although school staffs are more sensitive about behavior and communication that may be warning signals since the Columbine tragedy, Garbarino advises schools to assign one individual to whom both students and teachers report their concerns about a student's troubled behavior or communication. "There needs to be a centralized person who puts into better focus what teachers hear and what kids pass on about their classmates," Garbarino said.
Both the FBI and Secret Service point out that in nearly every case, the attacker had told at least one other student in advance about the plans for an attack. In one instance, 24 students knew about an attacker's plan to kill other classmates.
Peers play a role in promoting school violence. The Secret Service found that although most school shooters acted alone, peers had encouraged others to commit the violence. In those few cases in which an attacker had not told anyone about the specifics of his plan, his peers knew something "big" was about to happen.
The study reports that in more than 75 percent of all cases, although no adults had been told before the attacks, at least one adult had had concern about the shooter because of the way he behaved or communicated. In more than half the shooting incidents, more than one adult had expressed concern about the shooter before the attack.
The Secret Service tells schools to look at the facts when determining whether a student needs help: How is the potential shooter thinking, behaving, and communicating? Is the student expressing thoughts about killing himself? Is he talking about getting back at a particular teacher or classmate?
The Secret Service found that in most attacks, the student's motive is revenge. Most of the school shooters said students had bullied and harassed them. To help prevent such persecution, schools should improve the school climate -- for example, instituting a no-bullying policy and monitoring places where bullying is most likely to occur.
Schools also need to determine whether a student poses an immediate danger. Is the student talking about getting a weapon and asking questions about how to use it? What influence do his friends have on him? Answering questions like those can help school personnel determine how and when to intervene, the report advises.
The focus of preventing school violence needs to be on getting troubled kids help as well as determining how other schools have resolved near "misses," said Scott Poland, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. "This past year, many schools had a near miss," he said. "We need to look at what worked to prevent it from happening again."
Many schools think the remedy to school violence is placing more police officers -- often called school resource officers -- in schools, Poland said. Though he believes that school resource officers have a role in promoting safe schools, he doesn't believe they can replace school counselors to help troubled kids. "I don't wear a badge and police officers aren't trained counselors," Poland told Education World.
"Columbine kind of shocked the core of the nation, and rightly so," Poland said. Now schools continue to scramble for solutions, such as looking to the Secret Service and FBI for help. He questions the overall impact from the government agencies' reports; he's not sure the reports will help schools predict violent behavior because the agencies' expertise focuses on adult behavior.
According to the Secret Service, profiling carries a risk of over-identifying students. The agency points out that the traits and characteristics of school shooters vary too much to be helpful. And schools may miss identifying potential shooters if they focus only on traits and characteristics common to shooters.
For example, not all school shooters were loners, the Secret Service report states. Some were popular students. They were not all on drugs either. Less than one-third had histories of drug or alcohol abuse. And few had been diagnosed with mental disorders before the attack.
Diane Weaver Dunne
Copyright © 2000 Education World