Secret Service study: School violence is mostly preventable

The U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center released a study of 41 incidents of school violence from around the country. The study concludes that few of the incidents happened on the spur of the moment and in most cases there were clear warning signs and even threats of violence that preceded the attack. From the Associated Press:

“These are not sudden, impulsive acts where a student suddenly gets disgruntled,” Lina Alathari, the center’s head, said in an Associated Press interview. “The majority of these incidents are preventable.”…

There’s no clear profile of a school attacker, but some details stand out: Many were absent from school before the attack, often through a school suspension; they were treated poorly by their peers in person, not just online; they felt mistreated; some sought fame, while others were suicidal.

The key is knowing what to look for, recognizing the patterns and intervening early to try to stop someone from pursuing violence.

“It really is about a constellation of behaviors and factors,” Alathari said.

The report itself actually came up with ten key findings, one of which was that most of the attackers had a history of mental health problems:

Mental health factors were divided into three main categories: psychological, behavioral, and neurological/developmental. Most of the attackers (n = 32, 91%) in this study exhibited symptoms in at least one of these categories, and half of the attackers (n = 17, 49%) displayed symptoms of more than one type, with the most frequent combinations involving psychological and behavioral symptoms. When considering such signs and symptoms, it is possible that underlying situational factors may be the cause of the behavior (e.g., stressors the child is experiencing), as opposed to a diagnosable disorder.

The report also concludes that many attackers had negative personality traits, in particular narcissism:

One notable feature of attackers in this study with possible personality traits was narcissism, which manifested in multiple ways. These attackers generally had an inflated sense of self, believing that they were superior to others. Because they viewed themselves as superior, they had little concern for rules or laws, believing that they were above such conventions. Similarly, they did not respect people in positions of authority over them. Some of them sought fame through violence as a way to validate their inflated self-concepts. Furthermore, these attackers tended to lack empathy and derived sadistic pleasure from the thought of hurting or killing others.

Along with this was an interest in violence and in other school shootings. Nearly a quarter of the attackers had displayed an interest in the Columbine shooting and 20 percent had expressed interest in Nazism. Another thing many of the attackers had in common was bullying:

Most of the attackers in this study (n = 28, 80%) were bullied by their classmates. For more than half of the attackers (n = 20, 57%), the bullying appeared to be of a persistent pattern which lasted for weeks, months, or years…

For nearly three-quarters of the attackers (n = 26, 74%), there was evidence that they experienced some form of verbal bullying. This included spoken or written forms of aggression. Examples of verbal bullying experienced by attackers prior to their attacks included threats, crude gestures, name calling, teasing, taunting, and suggestions that they kill themselves.

Forty percent of the attackers had experienced physical bullying. And in most cases that bullying took place at school or on a bus to or from school. About a third of the attackers were described as having been bullies themselves, though most of them were also victims of bullying.

In the overwhelming majority of these attacks there were worrisome signs, and often direct threats in advance:

Every attacker included in this analysis (n = 35, 100%) exhibited concerning behaviors prior to their attack. In all but two of these cases (n = 33, 94%), concerning behaviors were displayed at school. About three-quarters of the attackers (n = 27, 77%) displayed concerning behaviors at home or in the community, and three-quarters displayed them online (n = 26, 74%).

Concerning behaviors ranged from relatively minor activities, to actions that elicited fear in those who observed them. For example, some attackers made statements that were simply out of character for the attacker or displayed other minor changes in behavior, while in other cases, attackers made direct threats of violence or brought weapons to school. In most of the cases (n = 28, 80%), the attacker’s behavior elicited concern from bystanders regarding the safety of the attacker or those around them…

Most attackers (n = 27, 77%) threatened their targets or shared their intentions to carry out an attack. In two-thirds of the cases (n = 23, 66%), those communications gave some level of imminence to the attack. About 90% of attackers who selected specific targets had made a threat prior to the attack.

So the kids who carry out these attacks are sending out warning signals in every case and in the majority of cases they are directly warning people an attack is coming. We certainly saw this in the Parkland shooting. All the signs were present, including disruptive behavior, threats, an interest in violence, etc. There were even warnings to the FBI in advance. And yet, all of it was overlooked until it was too late.

The table below sums up the main findings in the report. This information needs to be studied by school administrators and resource officers around the country:

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