As we mourn the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., it is a natural reaction to want to make a safer world for our children. We feel a pressure to think more, consider more, and do more on the issue of school safety especially. A crush of factors have been implicated in the Newtown tragedy: guns, video games, autism, Asperger’s, personality disorders, suspected alcoholism (parental), comic-book conventions, lack of religion (or presence of religion), schizophrenia, depression, divorce, absent fathering, survivalism, wealth, and yes, even Lyme disease.
It is humbling to realize that it is difficult to predict low-incidence events that are so incredibly fatal. Psychologists and psychiatrists realize their limitations in predicting violent behavior — there’s no test for this, no screening measure that can be given quickly, like a blood-alcohol or CBC draw.
In watching for extremely infrequent events, there is the danger that persons guilty of nothing other than shyness, introversion, common fantasies, family problems, and anger will be profiled as potential killers. In order to prevent one school shooting, we may subject that hundreds or even thousands of young people to undue suspicion. The more preventative layers that we add on, the greater the loss of privacy and freedom. Yet, it may be better to endure some of these false positives than endure another tragedy. But, to adopt scientific language, how many false positives? Where will the balance point be?
President Obama spoke for all of us this past week. As he struggles to seek ways to prevent events like Newton from happening again, the excellent work done the United States Secret Service has done about violence prevention is worthy of careful review.
The United States Secret Service has extensively studied school shootings, culminating in a report written in 2002, the Safe Schools Initiative. This study was initiated after the 1999 Columbine shootings, and used information and techniques previously used by the Secret Service to prevent assassinations.
An encompassing term, “targeted violence,” was used to describe attacks where a perpetrator had chosen to direct violence toward a specific place, individual, or group of individuals. Forty-one different school shootings prior to 2000 were studied, and ten of the perpetrators were individually interviewed.
One of the findings of the report was that looking for specific traits or conditions in the attacker was not as fruitful as closely examining the specific behaviors in each situation and examining these stepwise to narrow down the probability of violence toward a specific target.
In 2002, NTAC completed the Safe School Initiative (SSI), a study of attacks at K-12 schools. Conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, the study examined incidents in the United States from 1974 through May 2000, analyzing a total of 37 incidents involving 41 student attackers. The study involved extensive review of police records, school records, court documents, and other source materials, and included interviews with 10 school shooters. The focus of the study was on developing information about pre-attack behaviors and communications to identify information that may be identifiable or noticeable before such incidents occur.
The SSI found that school-based attacks are rarely impulsive acts. Rather, they are typically thought out and planned in advance. Almost every attacker had engaged in behavior before the shooting that seriously concerned at least one adult — and for many had concerned three or more adults. In addition, prior to most of the incidents, other students knew the attack was to occur but did not alert an adult. Rarely did the attackers direct threats to their targets before the attack. The study’s findings also revealed that there is no “profile” of a school-based attacker; instead, the students who carried out the attacks differed from one another in numerous ways.
The findings from the study suggest that some school-based attacks may be preventable, and that students can play an important role in prevention efforts. Using the study’s findings, the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education modified the Secret Service’s threat assessment approach for use in schools in order to give school and law enforcement professionals tools for investigating threats in schools, managing situations of concern, and creating safe school climates.
Since the study, the National Threat Assessment Center of the Secret Service has continued to work with safety partners as part of its mission, and a number of highly informative reports are available at their website. They have also conducted a study of violence in higher education, prompted by the Virginia Tech shootings.
— William Van Ornum is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research at American Mental Health Foundation.