Report spotlights key common factor in foiled school shootings

"That's the bottom line here. Bystanders save lives."

Jonathan Newton
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Madisyn Menthaca, 15, places roses at the memorials to 17 students and teachers killed at the school in 2018. –Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

A high school student told his assistant principal that three of his friends were planning an attack on their school, culminating in “suicide by cop” after they finished killing the students who’d bullied them. Asked why he reported his friends, the student said he wanted to get them help if it was just “all talk,” and to actually do something if they really intended mass murder.

As a project of its National Threat Assessment Center, the U.S. Secret Service analyzed 67 plots to commit school shootings which were averted, and found that in 63 of those plots — 94% — the students had shared their plans with someone, and nearly half had documented their ideas in writing or online. A study released March 30 found a number of similarities both among the foiled plots, and in a comparison of those whose attacks were averted and those who actually committed school violence.

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And what the Secret Service emphasized in releasing the report, “Averting Target School Violence,” is that school attacks are largely preventable.

“There are almost always intervention points available,” said Lina Alathari, the lead author of the report, “before a student resorts to violence,” such as those who were bullying victims, or those who have had experience with in-school discipline or adult law enforcement. “Early intervention is key to prevention,” Alathari said.

The study looked at 67 cases involving 100 alleged plotters between 2006 and 2018, which they found through news media and other public sources after a possible attack was interrupted and publicly reported. All but one of the 67 cases targeted public schools, 95% of the plotters were male and 95% were current students, with the other 5% having recently attended the target school. There is no race data about the plotters in the report.

The numbers were not too different between the foiled attackers and those who actually committed them. The Secret Service found that 77% of actual attackers had communicated with others about their plans (compared to 94% of those averted), that 90% were current students (compared to 95% averted), and that 76% of attackers who used guns had acquired them from their homes, while 70% of those averted had access to family guns. More than half had specific targets in the school, either classmates or school staff.

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“The takeaway from this report,” said Secret Service Director James Murray during a presentation to education stakeholders Tuesday, “is that when people come forward to report concerning behaviors, they can and do save lives. That’s the bottom line here. Bystanders save lives.”

And those bystanders are typically other students. The study found that in nearly 70% of the cases, the attack plot had been revealed to friends, classmates or other peers. In one case, a 13- and a 14-year-old boy told other students not to come to school in three days because they were planning a Columbine-style attack. The report says the boys told people who did come to wear white T-shirts so they wouldn’t be shot, but that was a trick: the boys intended to shoot those wearing white T-shirts. Similar warnings were found in 12 other cases.

The study also found that 43% of the averted attacks were either timed to the anniversary of the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, or were inspired by that incident, in which 12 students and a teacher were fatally shot by two 12th-grade students. Those students had assistance from others in buying guns, building explosives and practicing with both, and at least one parent reported their troubling online writings to police, but no action was taken before the horrific rampage. In actual attacks, the shooters of both the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook school cases either researched or specifically mentioned the Columbine case.

“Schools and communities must take tangible steps to facilitate student reporting,” the report concludes, “when classmates observe threatening or concerning behaviors,” by reminding them that school resource officers and school administrators are typically ready to act quickly when a tip is received. The report noted that 43% of the averted cases involved students observing troubling behavior but not reporting it, and two instances where adults didn’t act promptly on tips. School resource officers either detected or received reports about attacks in about a third of the 67 cases.

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The Secret Service cited a number of troubling behaviors, and possible triggering events, for students, parents and school staff to watch for. About 70% of plotters exhibited “some type of mental health symptom” shortly before their plans were disrupted, and one-third had a history of substance use or abuse. About 44% of the plotters had been bullied by classmates, and about half had displayed a fascination with violence, homicide or weapons.

In addition, the Secret Service said its research had shown that actual perpetrators of school violence “frequently experience a variety of stressful and tumultuous personal circumstances,” including instability at home, personal losses or grievances, financial uncertainty, bullying and social isolation. The authors said “a public health approach to violence prevention should begin with communities working to address the personal factors frequently associated with violence.”

There is urgency in the need to intervene. Of 33 cases where the plotter had a specific date in mind, more than 60% were planning to act the same day as the report or within two days. Of 43 cases where the plotters planned to use firearms, 63% had unimpeded access to guns they had either purchased, already owned or were allowed access by their parents. In 25 actual attacks, 76% of the shooters acquired their gun from their homes, the study found.

The authors noted that the goal of intervention isn’t necessarily to have students arrested, but also that “removing a student from school does not eliminate the risk they might pose to themselves or others.” Alathari said that “the research and guidance we publish is focused on prevention” hoping to “best position community and school leaders to effectively intervene before the next potential tragedy.”

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