New Secret Service Report Analyzes Targeted Attacks on K-12 Schools

Picture of Tara Gibson By Tara Gibson

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shutterstock_425394076The Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center has produced a report which breaks down targeted attacks on K-12 schools by currently-enrolled students or by students who recently left the school. The report identifies similar pre-attack behaviors to a report produced fifteen years earlier.

Following the Columbine School shooting in 1999, the Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) and the Department of Education started the Safe School Initiative - a program designed to study targeted attacks on K-12 schools by current and former students in order to answer the questions “Could we have known that these attacks were being planned?” and “What can be done to prevent future attacks from occurring?”

The result was a comprehensive analysis of thirty-seven targeted school attacks from 1974 to 2000 in which particular attention was paid to identifying detectable pre-attack behaviors. The conclusion was that there was no simple way to explain why the attacks had occurred, nor a simple solution. However, the analysis found sufficient shared pre-attack behaviors to suggest future attacks might be preventable. The ten key findings were:

Related Blog: K-12 School Safety Assessments in High Demand

  • Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely are sudden, impulsive acts.
  • Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.
  • Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
  • There is no accurate or useful profile of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
  • Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.
  • Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.
  • Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.
  • Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
  • In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
  • Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.

In the years after the publication of the Safe School Initiative report, the NTAC held training sessions for more than 100,000 personnel with a responsibility for school safety - i.e. from individual schools, school districts, law enforcement, and mental health services. The NTAC also published an “Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence” which was distributed to 40,000 public school districts and private schools across the country.

The Rate of School Attacks Doubles in Subsequent Years

Unfortunately, the efforts of the NTAC appear to have been unsuccessful. According to the Center's latest “Analysis of Targeted School Violence” there were forty-one targeted attacks on K-12 schools by current or former students between 2008 and 2017 - more than double the rate of the previous analysis. Notably, the latest analysis doesn't include the tragic events Parkland and Santa Fe in 2018. The attackers in both cases were current or former students.

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In the majority of cases, the students or former students who conducted the attacks displayed similar detectable pre-attack behaviors to those identified previously. All of the attackers had experienced a personal stressor prior to the attack (a significant loss or personal failure), 80 percent had been bullied at home or at school, and each of the attackers exhibited between two and eight detectable pre-attack behaviors - the average number being five.

  • Most of the attackers (83%) shared verbal, written, visual, or video communications that referenced their intent to carry out an attack.
  • Three-quarters of attackers (74%) displayed behaviors or shared communications indicating significant or increasing anger - including angry outbursts at school.
  • Nearly three-quarters the attackers (71%) stockpiled weapons or communicated about weapons in a way that indicated an unusual or concerning level of interest.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the attackers (, 63%) spoke about their sadness, depression, or loneliness, or appeared through observable behaviors to be experiencing these feelings.
  • More than half of attackers (57%) exhibited observable changes in demeanor, appearance, or routine prior to the attack.
  • More than half of attackers (54%) had communicated about, or engaged in behaviors related to, suicide or self-harm. In some cases, multiple friends knew the attacker was suicidal.
  • About one-third of attackers (37%) spoke or wrote about their violent interests, including topics related to previous school attacks, Hitler/Nazism, and other violent themes.
  • Other common behaviors included attackers talking about being bullied (34%), poor grades or attendance that raised concerns from parents or school staff (29%), and harassing others (14%).
  • It was also noted by NTAC analysts that 94% of attackers experienced multiple negative home life factors. These included a parental separation or divorce, family financial difficulties, domestic violence, incarcerated parents and siblings, or family members with mental health or substance abuse issues. However, the analysts were keen to point out that these factors alone were not predictors of a violent student, but that these factors should be taken into account with other pre-attack behaviors.

Security Measures to Prevent Targeted K-12 School Attacks

Beyond School Resource Officers and private security guards, surprisingly few of the forty-one K-12 schools at which attacks took place had security measures in place to protect students. Only fourteen had security cameras installed, seven had alert systems to accelerate lockdown or evacuation procedures, and three had magnetometers to detect weapons being brought into school. The report notes these were not being used at the times the attacks took place.

None of the K-12 schools had anonymous tip services in place for students to report pre-attack behaviors, and although seven schools had procedures in place to notify school staff of threatening or concerning student behavior, these consisted of phone numbers, email addresses, and paper forms through which the school could be contacted. The Office of Justice Programs’ National Criminal Justice Reference Service subsequently published a guide for implementing school tip services.

Anonymous tip services are proven to work - not only to prevent targeted K-12 school attacks, but also to address issues such as bullying, self-harm, suicide, and drug abuse. If you would like more information about implementing an anonymous tip service in your school or school district, do not hesitate to get in touch and speak with a member of our school safety team in order to organize a demonstration of our anonymous tip texting software.

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Written by Tara Gibson

Tara is a Marketing Coordinator on the Rave Mobile Safety marketing team. She loves writing about all things K-12 education, and manages the Rave social media channels. When she's not working, she's taking care of her smiley, shoe eating, Instagram-famous fur baby, Enzo!

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