How to Stop a School Shooting: Using Pre-Incident Indicators to Know When to Act and What to Do
Ten years ago today, 20 children – all ages six and seven – and 6 adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Like the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary and so many other school shootings before and since, the Oxford High School shooting didn’t have to happen. But if you think this post is about gun control or gun rights, you’d be wrong. This post is about what my Secret Service colleagues and I – along with our US Department of Education partners – learned when we talked with school shooters and analyzed their pre-attack behaviors and communications. It’s also about what we have learned from school shootings that have been prevented, through training and guidance we’ve given to schools and communities for over 20 years.
Why it’s possible to prevent school shootings
From our interviews of school shooters, our investigations into their school shootings, and the thousands of threat cases that we have worked on throughout the past 20 years, we know that it is quite possible to prevent school shootings.
- School shooters don’t “just snap” when they carry out their violent acts. Instead, they plan out their violence beforehand AND their planning behavior is often observed by their friends, classmates, and sometimes family members beforehand. In fact, their pre-attack behavior often follows what the Secret Service and FBI call a “pathway to violence”
- They develop some idea to do harm (often to try to solve a problem or handle a situation where they don’t see other options);
- They plan how they want to carry out the harm;
- They prepare for the violent act by accessing firearms, other weapons, and other gear they think they’ll need;
- Then they implement the plan for violence.
- School shooters almost always tell other people. Whether it be their friends, classmates or online followers, they often talk about their violent plans before they carry them out (the FBI calls these communications “leakage”).
- Most carry out their shootings because they are feeling desperate, despondent, or in many cases are suicidal. They often hope that police will kill them during the school shooting or plan to kill themselves at the end of their school shooting. Some even attempted suicide, but failed, and resorted to carrying out a school shooting instead with the hope that police would end their life.
So, we know that school shootings can be prevented because they often share their violent plans beforehand, they engage in observable behavior that shows they are thinking about or planning a violent act and they often feel they have to resort to violence because they see no other way to solve a problem or are otherwise feeling desperate or despondent.
Although the investigation is still ongoing, current reporting about the Oxford High School shootings shows a similar pattern of behavior by the accused student prior to the school shooting.
- His teacher found a note on his desk with drawings of a gun, someone being shot, blood, and the words “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”
- He posted photos and captions a few days before the shooting on Instagram showing his new 9mm gun and his mother posted on her social media that she and her son were practicing at the gun range with the new gun.
- From a different account, the student appeared to post a phrase about “becoming death,”, and “See you tomorrow, Oxford.”
- Several students at the school stayed home that day or went to a friend’s house instead of going to school, allegedly after hearing about the student’s plans for a school shooting that day.
- During the shooting, one of his classmates posted a TikTok from lockdown that said “He’s being true to his word,” again suggesting that the student shooter posted beforehand about (and/or told friends and classmates about) his plans for a school shooting.
- Law enforcement said they found a journal in the student’s backpack with details about his ideas and plans to shoot up his school;
- He created two videos on his cellphone with details about his intentions to shoot up his school.
I’m often asked why school shooters tell other people beforehand. The answer is that they are hoping someone will stop them. In case after case, students who engaged in violence and students who were stopped beforehand have told us they were uncomfortable with the violent thoughts they were having but didn’t know how to handle them. The same seems true in the Oxford shooting as well: the student left a note on his desk with the words “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”
Using threat assessment to stop school shootings
So, how can we use this information to stop a school shooting? In short order, we can stop school shootings by using a process called Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management (BTAM or “threat assessment” for short). A threat assessment is essentially a fact-finding process, that looks like this:
- In a threat assessment, we look for signs that a person is on a “pathway to violence,” including evidence of planning, leakage, (i.e., telling others about plans) and trying to access lethal weapons to carry it out.
- If we determine someone is on a pathway to violence – i.e. they are planning and preparing for a violent act – we then ask WHY. They may be despondent and see violence as a way out.
- When we know the WHY, we can figure out a plan to get them off the pathway to violence and keep them off the pathway. Resources we use to prevent suicide can also be used to prevent school shootings as well.
When my colleagues and I interviewed school shooters in prison, they often described feeling torn about their violent plans beforehand. A part of them felt they had to be violent but a part of them didn’t want to at the same time. So, when my colleagues and I work on threat cases, we always look for that ambivalence because it’s usually there. Even if the person we are assessing has moved very far down the pathway to violence, we look for the part of them that doesn’t want to do it.
When we can get them help to solve the underlying problems – including getting them into mental health treatment – we can get them off the pathway to violence and onto a better path.
My colleagues and I have provided threat assessment training to thousands of school, mental health, and law enforcement professionals around the United States, and continue to do so. And we hear back from training participants – sometimes even years later – that they were able to use threat assessment to stop a school shooting in their community and got help to a student who was struggling.
Threat assessment can be just as helpful in preventing violence in the workplace. How do you actually create a threat assessment program for your organization? Follow the steps in our checklist, Building a Workplace Threat Assessment Program, to help you get started.