Incidents of targeted school violence occurred most frequently at the start of the school year and after students returned to school according to a newly published report by the U.S. Secret Service.
For this study, an incident of targeted school violence was defined as any incident in which (i) a current or recently former K-12 school student (ii) purposefully used a weapon (iii) to cause physical injury to, or the death of, at least one other student and/or school employee (iv) in or on the immediate property of the school (v) while targeting in advance one or more specific and/or random student(s) and/or employee(s).
Here are some key findings:
41% of the attacks took place within the first week back to school following a break in attendance, such as a suspension, school holiday, or an absence due to illness or truancy. Nearly one quarter of the attacks took place on the first day that the attacker returned to school after an absence. In two of these incidents, the attacker was actively suspended from the school at the time of the attack. These findings suggest that schools should make concerted efforts to facilitate positive student engagement following discipline, including suspensions and expulsions, and especially within the first week that the student returns to school.
DURATION OF THE ATTACKS: Most of the attacks lasted five minutes or less. Two-thirds of the incidents lasted for two minutes or less, and nearly half of the attacks ended within one minute. None of the attacks lasted longer than 15 minutes.
Because most of these attacks ended very quickly, law enforcement rarely had the opportunity to intervene before serious harm was caused to students or staff. Additionally, many of the schools that experienced these tragedies had implemented physical security measures (e.g., cameras, school resource officers, lockdown procedures). Prevention is key.
LOCATION OF THE ATTACKS: The attacks usually started and ended in the same location. The most common locations of attacks were in classrooms and immediately outside of the school. Other locations included cafeterias, hallways, and administrative offices. Attacks in restrooms, locker rooms, a gymnasium, and a vestibule were less common.
ATTACK RESOLUTION: 51% of the attackers ended the attack without any external intervention. 17% committed suicide, 15% left the scene, 7% surrendered to school officials, 7% dropped their weapons and waited to be arrested, 2% stopped and called family, and one attacker 2% left the scene before calling family.
- 22% non-law enforcement adult school staff brought nine attacks to an end
- 15% of the attacks ended with law enforcement intervention who were already on campus
- No attacks were ended by outside law enforcement agencies responding to the scene from off-campus
- The victims included students, school staff, and law enforcement
The attackers were predominantly male in grade levels from 7 to 12.
More key findings from this study, and their implications for informing school violence prevention efforts, include:
- Attackers varied in age, gender, race, grade level, academic performance, and social characteristics. Similarly, there was no identified profile of the type of school impacted by targeted violence, as schools varied in size, location, and student-teacher ratios. Rather than focusing on a set of traits or characteristics, a threat assessment process should focus on gathering relevant information about a student’s behaviors, situational factors, and circumstances to assess the risk of violence or other harmful outcomes.
- Attackers usually had multiple motives, the most common involving a grievance with classmates: In addition to grievances with classmates, attackers were also motivated by grievances involving school staff, romantic relationships, or other personal issues. Other motives included a desire to kill, suicide, and seeking fame or notoriety. Discovering a student’s motive for engaging in concerning behavior is critical to assessing the student’s risk of engaging in violence and identifying appropriate interventions to change behavior and manage risk.
- Most attackers used firearms, and firearms were most often acquired from the home: Many of the attackers were able to access firearms from the home of their parents or another close relative. While many of the firearms were unsecured, in several cases the attackers were able to gain access to firearms that were secured in a locked gun safe or case. It should be further noted, however, that some attackers used knives instead of firearms to perpetrate their attacks. Therefore, a threat assessment should explore if a student has access to any weapons, with a particular focus on weapons access at home. Schools, parents, and law enforcement must work together rapidly to restrict access to weapons in those cases when students pose a risk of harm to themselves or others.
- Most attackers had experienced psychological, behavioral, or developmental symptoms: The observable mental health symptoms displayed by attackers prior to their attacks were divided into three main categories: psychological (e.g., depressive symptoms or suicidal ideation), behavioral (e.g., defiance/misconduct or symptoms of ADD/ADHD), and neurological/developmental (e.g., developmental delays or cognitive deficits). The fact that half of the attackers had received one or more mental health services prior to their attack indicates that mental health evaluations and treatments should be considered a component of a multidisciplinary threat assessment, but not a replacement. Mental health professionals should be included in a collaborative threat assessment process that also involves teachers, administrators, and law enforcement.
- Half of the attackers had interests in violent topics: Violent interests, without an appropriate explanation, are concerning, which means schools should not hesitate to initiate further information-gathering, assessment, and management of the student’s behavior. For example, a student who is preoccupied or fixated on topics like the Columbine shooting or Hitler, as was noted in the backgrounds of several of the attackers in this study, may be the focus of a school threat assessment to determine how such an interest originated and if the interest negatively impacts the student’s thinking and behavior.
- All attackers experienced social stressors involving their relationships with peers and/or romantic partners: Attackers experienced stressors in various areas of their lives, with nearly all experiencing at least one in the six months prior to their attack, and half within two days of the attack. In addition to social stressors, other stressors experienced by many of the attackers were related to families and conflicts in the home, academic or disciplinary actions, or other personal issues. All school personnel should be trained to recognize signs of a student in crisis. Additional training should focus on crisis intervention, teaching students skills to manage emotions and resolve conflicts, and suicide prevention.
- Nearly every attacker experienced negative home life factors: The negative home life factors experienced by the attackers included parental separation or divorce, drug use or criminal charges among family members, and domestic abuse. While none of the factors included here should be viewed as predictors that a student will be violent, past research has identified an association between many of these types of factors and a range of negative
outcomes for children.
- Most attackers were victims of bullying, which was often observed by others: Most of the attackers were bullied by their classmates, and for over half of the attackers the bullying appeared to be of a persistent pattern which lasted for weeks, months, or years. It is critical that schools implement comprehensive programs designed to promote safe and positive school climates, where students feel empowered to report bullying when they witness it or are victims of it, and where school officials and other authorities act to intervene.
- Most attackers had a history of school disciplinary actions, and many had prior contact with law enforcement: Most attackers had a history of receiving school disciplinary actions resulting from a broad range of inappropriate behavior. The most serious of those actions included the attacker being suspended, expelled, or having law enforcement interactions as a result of their behavior at school. An important point for school staff to consider is that punitive measures are not preventative. If a student elicits concern or poses a risk of harm to self or others, removing the student from the school may not always be the safest option. To help in making the determination regarding appropriate discipline, schools should employ disciplinary practices that ensure fairness, transparency with the student and family, and appropriate follow-up.
- All attackers exhibited concerning behaviors. Most elicited concern from others, and most communicated their intent to attack: The behaviors that elicited concern ranged from a constellation of lower-level concerns to objectively concerning or prohibited behaviors. Most of the attackers communicated a prior threat to their target or communicated their intentions to carry out an attack. In many cases, someone observed a threatening communication or behavior but did not act, either out of fear, not believing the attacker, misjudging the immediacy or location, or believing they had dissuaded the attacker. Students, school personnel, and family members should be encouraged to report troubling or concerning behaviors to ensure that those in positions of authority can intervene.
While communities can advance many school safety measures on their own, experience tells us that keeping schools safe requires a team effort and the combined resources of the federal, state, and local governments; school boards; law enforcement; and the public. The study conducted by the Secret Service provides an unprecedented base of facts about school violence, as well as an updated methodology and practical guidelines for prevention. We encourage our readers to download the entire study via the link below and to use it to guide the best practices for maintaining a safe learning environment for all children.
For those unfamiliar with the the U.S. Secret Service, it's an agency with a longstanding tradition of conducting threat assessments as part of its mandate to ensure the safety of this Nation’s highest elected officials. Their National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) is dedicated to expanding the field of violence prevention by closely examining the targeted violence that affects communities across the United States. As part of this mission, NTAC has maintained a particular focus on the prevention of targeted school violence.