Back in May, I wrote an article, Are We Facing a Tsunami of Mass Shootings? In my opinion, we are, and we are now starting to see the crest of the wave. In my previous article, I postulated we are facing an oncoming tsunami of mass shootings because of the new and untreated mental health issues that festered in last year’s pandemic lockdown. The path to violence has many dimensions, and one of the most important ones is the presence of stressors. A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013 found that active shooters were typically experiencing multiple stressors (an average of 3.6 separate stressors) in the year before they attacked. Stressors are physical, psychological, or social forces that place real or perceived demands/pressures on an individual and which may cause psychological and physical distress. 62% of the active shooters were experiencing mental health stress. The stressor “mental health” indicates that the active shooter appeared to be struggling with (most commonly) depression, anxiety, paranoia, etc., in their daily life in the year before the attack.
The reason someone becomes a mass shooter is more complicated than just suffering from a mental health illness, and not everyone with mental health issues will become violent. We need to understand that targeted violence, i.e., school shootings, is a person’s “solution” to their untenable problem. Like we saw in Oxford, Michigan, people who commit these acts of violence conclude that violence is an acceptable means to address their grievances or source of stress. I do not know anything about the student who committed the Oxford High School shooting (aside from what has been reported in the news) or why he did it, but after years of performing and teaching behavioral threat assessment, I can be sure of a couple of things: he traveled down a very predictable path with observable behaviors that should have indicated he was a student in crisis and needed help and intervention. Several Oxford students said they stayed home from school on the day of the shooting because they were afraid “something bad” would happen.
What do we do now? Do we wait for the next school shooting and have the same old conversations that don’t seem to make a difference, or do we do the thing we know stops school shootings?
1. Know the signs a student is on a path to violence and give students a way to safely tell someone.
There are several observable signs a person is on a path to violence, but the most obvious one is leakage. Leakage is defined as “the communication to a third party of an intent to do harm to a target.” Students might intentionally confide in a peer or communicate their violent plans through their journals or social media pages. In their study of school violence, the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education noted that in 81% of the 37 violent incidents reviewed between 1974 and 2000, at least one individual knew the attacker was considering an act of violence before it transpired. These individuals were most often (93%) friends, classmates, or siblings; only rarely (17%) did the attackers threaten their intended targets directly. In this one pathway warning behavior, we have an amazing opportunity to stop an individual’s progression to violence. So, why aren’t people who are witnesses to leakage telling anyone? It can stem from people’s personal fear of “getting involved,” or perhaps they are not sure what to do or who to tell. Every school and police agency should utilize a “see something, say something” campaign. Several schools I worked with had a confidential “Text-a-Tip” number students could use to alert school and police about concerning issues. Watch the news report of my students using their Text-a-Tip for a school-related threat.
2. Create Behavioral Threat Assessment Teams and train your school staff.
Shockingly, most school districts and police departments do not have a threat assessment procedure or have people trained to assess a person of concern. If they do, they are usually not well trained or are using an inferior threat assessment program.
Every teacher and staff member at a school should be trained to identify pathway warning behaviors and how to report them. School police officers, school administrators, and counselors must be trained on how to perform a behavioral threat assessment. The threat doesn’t end at the assessment. They also need to be trained on how to manage a person of concern. Expelling a student from your school doesn’t put a magical forcefield around your campus. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School learned this. After they removed Nikolas Cruz the prior year, he returned and murdered 17 people.
After reading this article, sadly, you probably know more about behavioral threat assessments and identifying a potential school shooter than 90% of school officials and law enforcement. After working with schools all over the country, I have learned something very important; if you want something done, and you want change, it often comes from parents demanding it.
Parents should be asking their school district some difficult questions. Ask them, do you have a specially trained behavioral threat assessment team? When you identify a person of concern, what do you do? If the answer is, we call the police. Then the next question is, are the police trained to assess a person of concern? What happens after the student gets released from juvenile hall or the hospital? Do they have a plan to manage that student? Is every teacher at your child’s school trained to identify pathway warning behaviors? Do they have a mandatory reporting procedure? If they have been trained, ask, are they retrained every year? If they’re not, they should be.
Share this article with your friends on social media. This needs to be a national conversation.
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Image Credit: NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/multiple-people-injured-shooting-oxford-high-school-michigan-officials-rcna7128