Note: I recently wrote this research paper for my Master's in Education program at Central Michigan University, which is why I focus on U.S. schools. However, many of the conclusions I draw are equally applicable to schools in Canada.
Given the shocking and recurring outbursts of violence committed by students inside U.S. schools and classrooms, is there anything that schools can do to identify and deal with serious threats?
In its documentary, “Cry For Help,” PBS Frontline (2009) estimates “the odds that a U.S. high school student will die in high school violence is one in a million.” The National Center For Education Statistics (2009) says that eight per cent of schools reported a student threatening physical attack during the 2009-10 school year. (P. 3)
As infrequent as these violent acts may be, they garner extensive media coverage in which we grapple with seemingly unanswerable questions: Why did it happen? Why didn't anyone see the warning signs? What can we do to stop it from happening again?
These questioned are echoed by the FBI in The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective (2000): “Why would a student bring a weapon to school and without any explicable reason open fire on fellow students and teachers? Are school shooters angry? Are they crazy? Is their motive revenge? Hatred for the victims? A hunger for attention?” (P. 1)
Those who try to answer these questions offer confusing or conflicting views. In his Oscar-winning film Bowling For Columbine (2002), Michael Moore reminds us of the possibilities set forth after the tragic killings at the school in Littleton, including heavy-metal music, movies, South Park, Satan, Marilyn Manson, the breakup of the family unit, and bowling (a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, given that the killers in the Columbine attack apparently went bowling the morning of the attacks).
Other films, like Elephant, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and The Class have grappled with the issue of school violence, and even pop songs, like the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays,” Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” and Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” (posted at the top of this post) chronicle possible motives.
As the media reports fade, we stop asking the questions, and the cycle continues amidst the fear that the same thing could happen again in any school, maybe one in our neighborhood. “How,” asks the Secret Service in its Threat Assessments in Schools guide (2002), “should school officials and other responsible adults respond?” (P. 4)
In the book Critical Issues in Education (2012), the authors don’t ask “how,” but "can schools deal effectively with violent or potentially violent students?" (Nelson, P. 334) One of the viewpoints outlined in the book is “the problem of school violence is beyond school control.” (Nelson, P. 340)
Indeed, the first thing one learns when embarking on research about this topic is, “there is no accurate or useful profile of attackers.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 322)
According to the Chicago Sun-Times (2000), “Some (attackers) lived with both parents in “an ideal, All-American family.” Some were children of divorce, or lived in foster homes. A few were loners, but most had close friends. Few had disciplinary records. Some had honor roll grades and were in Advanced Placement courses; some were failing. Few showed a change in friendships or interest in school.” (Dedman, P. 6)
Given this reality, how can any school predict, mitigate, or prevent violence in classrooms and schools?
That is what this blog post aims to find out.
There’s an abundance of literature available on the topic of school violence. In an attempt to get to the heart of this issue and answer the question posed in my introduction, I’ve researched books, articles, documentaries, and reports from such notable entities as the FBI, the Secret Service, the U.S. Department of Education, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Center For Education Statistics, and the Report of Governor Bill Owens’ Columbine Review Commission.
It’s been a thought-provoking and worthwhile journey. In my research, I’ve found that – despite a belief to the contrary – there is a profile of the high-school attacker. And there is a consensus among government officials, police profilers, and psychologists about how teachers and school administrators can and should deal with this issue. The answers aren’t simple, but they’re there.
“These terrible shootings do not have to happen. They are not random. There are plenty of warning signs. In my opinion, every one of these occurrences which has happened could have been prevented,” says Frank Roberts, co-founder of the Institute for Violence Prevention and Applied Criminology, in “Cry For Help” (2009).
What would you do?
Perhaps most teachers have had a student in their class who has raised alarm bells, but none wants to respond with undue judgment or regret not responding to signals after it's too late.
The U.S. Secret Service has produced a number of reports on school violence. In its Threat Assessments in Schools report (2002), it asks, “What should happen when a student comes to attention for saying something or behaving in a manner that causes concern, as in the following instances?” (P. 3)
The list that follows should give any instructor pause:
- "The kids are saying that Johnny told his friends not to go to the cafeteria at noon on Tuesday because something big and bad is going to happen.
- “Marty, who has appeared withdrawn and irritable the past few weeks, handed in a story about a student putting a bomb in an empty school.
- “Sandy brought bullets to school to show friends.
- “Rafael, who got pushed around again after gym class, stormed out in tears, shouting "You’re all going to pay!"
- “Casey, who was suspended last year for bringing a knife to school, left a "hit list" on his desk.
- “Terry submitted an essay in which an assassin blew up the school, attacked the governor, and then killed himself.” (P. 3 to 4)
What not to do
After most school shootings, school administrators across the U.S. customarily respond with so-called zero-tolerance policies – “meaning every idle threat (is) treated like a cocked gun.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 322) This approach doesn’t work.
“After Columbine, it really sucked beings a student in America,” says Michael Moore in Bowling For Columbine (2002), before recounting a long list of infractions for which students have been suspended, including: carrying nail clippers, pointing a chicken finger at a teacher, folding a piece of paper into the shape of a gun, having dyed hair, and not following the school dress code.
In the past, some students have been singled out for being loners or having eccentric character traits. However, “identifying outcasts as threats is not healthy. It demonizes innocent kids who are already struggling. Oddballs are not the problem. They do not fit the profile.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 322)
According to the FBI (2000), neither do “unusual or aberrant behaviors, interests, or hobbies.” (P. 4)
The biggest myth: shooters are normal people who just “snap.” In fact, “a staggering 93 per cent planned their attack in advance.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 323)
That attacks are planned means there is an opportunity for adults to intervene. “Schools and other community institutions do have the capacity - and the responsibility - to keep that potential from turning real.” (FBI, 2000, P. 4)
The FBI’s four-pronged assessment model
“The path toward violence is an evolutionary one, with signposts along the way.” (FBI, 2000, P. 7) But what are the signposts?
Here’s where it gets complicated. The FBI’s profile of a likely perpetrator of school violence includes a vast list of traits and behaviors, including: depression, manipulation, alienation, dehumanization, rigidity, low self-esteem, dehumanization of others, lack of empathy, an exaggerated sense of entitlement and need for attention, externalization of blame, anger-management problems, inappropriate humor, intolerance, threatening words and behaviors, a closed social group, and negative role models. (FBI, 2000, P. 16)
The only trait that’s a given: “100 per cent male.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 322)
It’s unlikely that any teacher could remember or identify these traits and the FBI recommends against even trying. A student who shows these signs is statistically most likely experiencing depression or mental illness with no plans to attack or hurt anyone.
“Moreover, the use of profiles carries a risk of over-identification,” the Secret Service says. “The great majority of students who fit any given profile will not actually pose a risk of targeted violence.” (2004, P. 34)
Instead, the FBI recommends a four-pronged assessment model based on:
- The student’s personality
- Family dynamics
- School dynamics and the student’s role within them
- Social dynamics.
“Eighty one per cent of shooters confided their intentions. More than half told at least two people (in advance).” (Cullen, 2009, P. 323)
The attackers usually tell other students and rarely adults, but – perhaps most shocking – these students do nothing to intervene in a misplaced code of silence, and occasionally egg on the would-be attacker into actually committing the crime.
“I told everyone what I was going to do,” said Evan Ramsey to the Chicago Sun-Times. (Dedman, 2004, P. 4). In 1997, Ramsey killed his principal and a student in Bethel, Alaska. He’d told so many students about what he’d planned to do, a crowd showed up to watch the attacks, one student with a camera.
Sometimes, the would-be attacker expresses his intent more subtly – in written work or art. Again, the FBI warns against overreacting to one such instance, which is often typical of teenage boys’ normal fascination with death and violence.
However, if the writing features “malice, brutality, and an unrepentant hero…concern should rise.” In addition, students who work the theme of violence into every assignment may be indicative of “repetition leading to obsession.” (Cullen, 2009, P. 323)
Most threats uttered by students are “melodramatic, vague, implied, implausible” and, therefore, idle. However, when threats are “direct and specific, identify a motive, and indicate work performed to carry it out,” the likelihood of an attack increases dramatically. (Cullen, 2009, P. 323)
In 98 per cent of school attacks, the Secret Services (2004) says, “the attackers had experienced or perceived some major loss prior to the attack, including a perceived failure or loss of status, loss of a loved one or of a significant relationship, including a romantic relationship.” In three-quarters of the attacks, “attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured” by others beforehand. (P. 23)
Although this pattern of planning while leaking information may be something teachers and parents would rather not think about or outright ignore, perhaps the greatest opportunity to stop violent acts is to look for warning signs along the way, listen to what students are talking about, and taking measures to breach the informal code of silence that pervades student culture.
Prong two – family life – is more problematic, as a teacher rarely has opportunity to see into the home life of his or her students. However, the most telling characteristics of a potentially violent student include a turbulent relationship with one’s family, an acceptance in the family of what other families would consider to be disturbing behavior, access to weapons, the student “ruling the roost” instead of the parents, and no limits or monitoring of TV or Internet. (FBI, 2000, P. 21)
Prong three – school dynamics – is something over which teachers and administrators have control. If the school tolerates disrespectful behavior, provides unsupervised access to computers, and has a culture of inequitable discipline, inflexibility, and a pecking order and code of silence among students, the odds of a school attack rise. (FBI, 2000, P. 22)
Prong four – social dynamics – relates to a student’s interactions with his peer group. If a student’s peer group shares his fascination with violence, uses drugs or alcohol, and has “easy and unmonitored access” to TV and a computer, the odds again rise. As well, the FBI warns about “the copycat effect,” which is “very common…after a shooting has occurred anywhere in the United States.” It recommends that teachers be more vigilant for as long as several months after a “heavily publicized” incident. (FBI, 2000, P. 23)
If a student demonstrates issues in the four prongs, as outlined above, the FBI recommends that the “threat should be taken more seriously and appropriate intervention by school authorities and/or law enforcement should be initiated as quickly as possible.” (2000, P. 11)
The FBI also warns against judging students based on just one of the above traits in isolation, using the criteria to evaluate a student who is having a “bad day” (as opposed to a pattern of behavior), or using it to diagnose someone suffering from depression or mental illness (if you’re unsure, the FBI recommends an evaluation from a mental health professional).
The FBI does not specifically recommend how to intervene, but suggests that each school should appoint one staff member as threat-assessment coordinator. That person’s job should be to oversee a team of administrators, counseling staff, law enforcement reps, and mental health professionals, who determine how to evaluate threats on a case-by-case basis (and appropriate responses to them).
It also notes that “expulsion” should not be mistaken for “intervention:”
“Expelling or suspending a student for making a threat must not be a substitute for careful threat assessment and a considered, consistent policy of intervention. Disciplinary action alone, unaccompanied by any effort to evaluate the threat or the student's intent, may actually exacerbate the danger - for example, if a student feels unfairly or arbitrarily treated and becomes even angrier and more bent on carrying out a violent act.” (FBI, 2000, P. 25)
What can schools do?
In addition to the FBI’s four-pronged threat-assessment approach discussed earlier, there is a number of other models set forth for how schools should deal with violent threats as an issue (predicting and preparing for the worst-case scenario) and a crisis.
The Safe Communities-Safe Schools Model
This model, as presented to Governor Bill Owen’s Columbine Commission (2000), revolves around the formation of a safe-school planning team made up of representatives from local businesses, the community, law enforcement, teachers, administration, clergy, and student reps (possibly – it depends on their age). (P. 102)
- Conducts a site assessment, creates a safe schools plan, and reviews it once a year
- Writes a school code of behavior for adults and students and communicates it to staff, students, and parents
- Institutes a school support-team made up of administrators, counselors, mental health workers, and law enforcement. The team oversees a violence prevention program; its job is to AID, not punish students at risk
- Writes a crisis plan and rehearses it (similar to fire drills). The plan’s job is to predict “the worst-case scenario” and outline roles and responsibilities (for administration, teachers, students, parents, workers, emergency response, and law enforcement) should the unthinkable happen. (P. 103 to 104)
Psychologist John Nicoletti is a school-violence expert who testified before Governor Bill Owen’s Columbine Commission (2000) and wrote the book, “Violence Goes to School,” which outlines violence-prevention techniques for schools. (P. 104)
His plan also involves “the establishment of school policies directed at students, faculty, staff, and parents, which warn clearly that school administrators will act immediately in response to threats of violence.” (P. 105)
As in the Safe Communities model, a threat-assessment and/or violence management team oversees the policies, which should include an emergency plan, diagrams of the school, formulations of exit routes, locations of alarms, sprinklers, and utilities, phone numbers, and a school roster.
Nicoletti recommends that each school assemble a number of “emergency kits” and store them in different locations around the school. (P. 105)
The Secret Service Threat Assessment Model
The Secret Service has also written and distributed a Threat Assessment Guide (2002), which outlines a process that administrators, teachers, and law-enforcement officers can follow (investigation, evaluation, and threat management) to reduce threats and violence and maintain a safe school environment. It involves a two-pronged approach in which “threat assessment” coexists with “cultures and climates of safety, respect, and emotional support.” (P. 5)
This means that teachers and administrators pay attention to students and listen to their emotional and educational needs in order to reduce the number of formal threat assessments that need to be conducted. As Luke Woodham, a teen shooter who killed his mother and two classmates in Mississippi, advises in the Chicago Sun-Times (2000): “Pay attention.” (Dedman, P. 5)
The key goals in creating safe climates? Fostering a culture of respect, creating connections between adults and students, and breaking the code of silence. Easier said than done, of course, but the Secret Service guide (2002) provides a helpful checklist:
- Assessment of the school’s emotional climate;
- Emphasis on the importance of listening in schools;
- Adoption of a strong, but caring stance against the code of silence;
- Prevention of, and intervention in, bullying;
- Involvement of all members of the school community in planning, creating, and sustaining a school culture of safety and respect;
- Development of trusting relationships between each student and at least one adult at school; and
- Creation of mechanisms for developing and sustaining safe school climates. (P. 69 to 72)
So, how does a teacher deal with students of concern? According to the Secret Service (2002), you would bring the concern to a multidisciplinary threat team controlled by school authorities with law enforcement consultation or participation (the assessment process doesn’t exist to analyze the entire student body, but rather individual cases as they come to authorities’ attention).
The threat assessment team makes inquiries in these areas:
- The facts that drew attention to the student and the situation
- Information about the student
- Information about "attack-related" behaviors
- The presumed target. (P. 48 to 51)
“Threat assessments may be brief and limited, or extensive and complex. The facts of a situation, together with information developed about a student of concern, will determine the scope of the threat assessment process. Many situations can be understood and resolved after initial information gathering and evaluation.” (Secret Service, 2002. P. 43)
After conducting this research, it’s clear that one of the positions put forward in Nelson’s Critical Issues in Education “the problem of school violence is beyond school control” (Nelson, 2012, P. 340) is untenable.
Schools cannot ignore the threat of violence and, in fact, have an obligation to take every threat seriously. This is not in dispute in any of the literature I’ve read and, in fact, the only clear way we have to mitigate the possibility of it occurring in any school.
“A clear, vigorous response is essential for three reasons,” says the FBI. “First and most important, to make sure that students, teachers, and staff are safe; second, to assure that they will feel safe; and third, to assure that the person making the threat will be supervised and given the treatment that is appropriate and necessary to avoid future danger to others or himself. (FBI, 2000, P. 25)
All of these proposed solutions have these things in common:
- Working to maintain a culture of safety, respect, and openness at school.
- Instituting a violence-prevention program, safe-school guidelines, and an issues-management plan.
- Listening to students and being ready to help with emotional and educational issues as they arise.
- Community involvement and consultation with trained professionals who have a background in mental health, education, and law enforcement.
- Evaluating every threat that comes to the attention of authorities.
- Instituting a multidisciplinary team in each school.
- Sharing information between school and law-enforcement authorities.
Given that almost all violent school incidents are planned in advance, virtually every attacker speaks about his plans, and most attackers have already caused some degree of concern in another area of their lives, the implication is that schools can prevent at least some of these situations.
Certainly, every teacher can play his or her role in creating a culture of openness and in which he or she listens – really listens – to students and is ready to respond to their educational and emotional needs, backed by trained professionals.
It may take a lot of time and work, but it’s worth it.
- Bowling For Columbine. Dir. Michael Moore. Alliance Atlantis, 2002. DVD.
- “Cry For Help.” Frontline. PBS. Boston. April 29, 2009. TV.
- Cullen, Dave. Columbine. New York: Twelve, 2009.
- Dedman, Bill. Deadly Lessons: School Shooters Tell Why. Chicago Sun-Times. October 15, 2000.
- FBI, U.S. Department of Justice. Critical Incidence Response Group. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective, by Mary Ellen O’Toole. 2000.
- National Center For Education Statistics. Crime, Violence, Discipline, Safety in U.S. Public Schools: 2009 to 10. May 2011.
- Nelson, Jack L., Stuart Palonsky, Mary Rose McCarthy. Critical Issues in Education, Eighth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.
- The Report of Governor Bill Owens’ Columbine Review Commission. Hon. William H. Erickson, chairman. May 2001.
- U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education. The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. July 2004.
- U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education. Threat Assessments in Schools. A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. May 2002.