Hulett: Best practices for preventing targeted school violence
"Pointless partisan political prattling over inapplicable gun control legislation sidetracks attention from serious, workable efforts to avert targeted school violence," writes InForum columnist Mike Hulett.
In the midst of emotional demands for more gun control legislation following another deadly attack on a school by an extremely disturbed individual, a well-researched study provides objective insights for preventing targeted school violence.
"Averting Targeted School Violence: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Plots Against Schools" found threat assessment and early intervention are best practices for preventing targeted school violence. Analysis of 67 averted school attack plots revealed intervention points are almost always available before a student’s behavior escalates to violence.
Included in the study were students with histories of school discipline, prior contact with law enforcement and having been bullied. Many suffered mental health issues, including depression and suicidality. Committing suicide was usually part of the school attack plot. Many had been adversely impacted by childhood experiences including substance abuse, violence or abuse in the home, parental incarceration, or parental mental health issues.
The analysis found targeted school violence is preventable when communities identify warning signs and intervene. Based on examining disrupted plots, and building on the National Threat Assessment Center’s 20-year history of studying targeted school violence, the study indicates the following factors must be considered when developing policies and protocols for multidisciplinary school threat assessment.
- Students are most often motivated to plan a school attack because of interpersonal conflicts with classmates, highlighting the necessity for interventions and de-escalation programs.
- Students displaying an interest in violent or hate-filled topics should prompt immediate assessment and intervention. Nearly one-third of the plotters in the study researched previous mass attackers.
- Schools should attempt to intervene with disturbed students before their behavior warrants legal consequences.
- Schools and communities must take tangible steps to facilitate classmate reporting when threatening social media posts or other concerning behaviors are observed.
- Eight plots in the study were reported by family members, illustrating their crucial role in recognizing and addressing a student’s risk of causing harm.
- Families must be educated on resources readily available to address their concerns, whether in the school or in the greater community.
- Threat assessments must examine a student’s access to weapons, particularly in the home.
- School resource officers are important players in school violence prevention. In nearly one-third of the study’s cases, an SRO either reported the plot or responded to a report made by someone else.
- Simply removing a student from the school without appropriate community supports will not remove the risk of harm they pose to themselves or others.
Implementing these threat assessment factors leads to timely intervention and support for students experiencing distress. The primary objective is not to administer discipline or to introduce students into the criminal justice system. Those responses are sometimes necessary, particularly in situations involving explicit threats, violence or weapons, but the primary objective of threat assessment is to provide the student with immediate help, working to ensure positive outcomes for that individual and the community.
Pointless partisan political prattling over inapplicable gun control legislation sidetracks attention from serious, workable efforts to avert targeted school violence. Research clearly demonstrates best practices are early threat assessment and intervention.
Hulett is a regular contributor to the opinion page.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.