Still photo from Columbine High School Security Camera 4/20/99
Since 2013, there have been over 200 school shootings in the United States. These events have taken place, overwhelmingly, at colleges and high schools across the Nation. Yet a majority of colleges and high schools in the U.S. have no threat assessment team, no protocols for handling threats of violence, and no system where threatening students can be reported. These are not unpredictable events. Students and others wishing to do harm to a school, its employees, or other students do not just snap. In most cases, they've told others about their thoughts.
The majority of those who have committed these horrific crimes displayed psychological "leakage". In other words, they talked to others about their plans, made drawings or writings, made videos, and/or did other things that would give away their thoughts. When police searched Adam Lanza's (Sandy Hook) computer, for example, they found saved pictures of the Columbine shooters, a story about a school shooting from 1891, and pictures of Lanza holding a gun to his head. Lanza even wrote at story called "The Big Book of Granny" at age 10. This story includes the line, "let's hurt children". At Columbine, Harris and Klebold quite literally left clues everywhere... in their planners, in notebooks, online, and at one point even made and stored explosive devices in their own homes. Seung-Hui Cho (Va. Tech) wrote violent and disturbing stories. These stories were disturbing enough to garner him a referral for counseling services. But in each of these cases, no one thought to dig further. If they had, they would have found the images on Lanza's computer, pipe bombs in Harris' closet, and a 9mm handgun and more disturbing writings in Cho's dorm room. The bottom line is this... these are NOT unpredictable events.
While there is no single cohesive profile for school shooters, there are a number of red flag warning behaviors and emotional states. Dr. Peter Langman, a leading expert in school shootings and their perpetrators, believes that these shooters generally fall into one or more of three distinct categories. These are psychopathic, psychotic, and traumatized. While this generally seems to be true, there are also outliers like Dylan Klebold. Rather than fitting neatly into one of these categories, Klebold seems, by all evidence, to have been more depressed than anything else. Behaviorally, there are a number of red flags that can serve to indicate a student's (or anyone's) risk for violence. These include a fascination with weapons, themes of revenge, repeatedly watching movies or TV shows that speak to themes of revenge, idolizing previous school shooters, a belief in oneself as a martyr, just to name a few, can all be indicators of dangerousness. It should be noted, however, that none of these factors, either emotional or behavioral, can be viewed out of context as increasing the risk for violence. For example, many kids and teens like guns and have experienced trauma... those two factors alone are meaningless without a thorough and detailed threat assessment. More often than not, threat assessments do not find a student to be at risk for near-future violence. On occasion though, a thorough threat assessment can shine a light on a student at high risk for near-future violence.
Let's take a look at the horrific tragedy that occurred in Parkland, FL where 17 teens lost their lives to a school shooter. This unspeakable crime was committed by 19 year old Nikolas Cruz. According to available reports, Cruz had made threats to the school on multiple occasions. Those who knew him said, "He's the kind of guy that will shoot up the school one day". His family had concerns about his mental health and volatility, and anonymous tipsters fearing he would harm people, called the FBI. Given just this information and the fact that Cruz had ready access to guns, he would almost certainly have been deemed a very high risk for near-future violence if he had undergone a threat assessment. Recommendations for treatment would have been made, perhaps even up to inpatient hospitalization. Police and school personnel would have been made aware of these findings and likely would have more closely monitored Cruz's behavior. Short of inpatient hospitalization, however, nothing would affect his ability to purchase and possess guns. Unfortunately, and this is perhaps the most glaring hole in any risk assessment strategy, under current law (he had not been involuntary hospitalized) Cruz would still have his guns. They could not be seized even for a limited period of time. Without a law allowing for the seizure of weapons from those at high risk for violence, no intervention would have been likely to stop Cruz. Our justice system, much like our healthcare system, is designed to be reactive... not proactive. As a result, we find ourselves reacting in horror instead of relief, over and over again.
While new gun control laws are a big part of the answer to school shootings, we must be able to identify those at risk to be able to truly decrease the risk for school violence. Having a school threat assessment program should be, perhaps more than ever, an integral component of school safety. A trained team of school, police, and mental health professionals can assess and respond to any threat and collectively evaluate students who may be at high risk for near-future violence.
If you're a school administrator, a concerned parent, or simply a concerned citizen and you want to learn more about threat assessments and school threat teams, feel free to call us at 828-263-4480.