Assailants like Harris and Klebold and Cho have the upper hand in their private battles with us and whatever demons torture their souls. They have the element of surprise. Initially they have superior firepower. They have insider advantages like knowledge of the terrain. They have detailed plans. And they do not intend to survive.
We could prevent another Virginia Tech incident by transforming universities into fortified citadels using access control, heavily-armed police, and the constant digital gaze of Big Brother. Academic freedom and a few of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution may have to be suspended, but only in the interest of crime prevention.
Of course, that is not likely to happen. Neither is controlling the flow of firearms or eliminating the celebrity status awarded homicidal maniacs by the media.
We need a new mission statement. A mission statement that goes beyond the traditional reaction rhetoric.
“Preempt the worst and hope for the best” describes a feasible process to take away the assailant’s advantage and use it to our own.
The first step in the process of preemption involves ignoring conventional wisdom about school shooters.
School Massacre Myth #1
School shooters are as unpredictable as earthquakes.
Gavin de Becker, one of the country’s most experienced threat evaluators, wrote in his book, The Gift of Fear, that with violent acts “there is a process as observable, and often as predictable, as water coming to a boil.”
School Massacre Myth #2
School shooters just ‘snap,’ and start killing
A joint study by the Department of Education and the Secret Service concluded that “incidents of targeted violence at school are rarely sudden, impulsive acts.”
School Massacre #3
School shooters are monsters.
Assassins, spree killers, school shooters, mass murderers – whatever one chooses to call them – are all human. Not only are they human, but they are similar to each other. Similar traits. Similar MO’s. Similar obsessions. Similar behaviors.
Without these three myths, school shooters are no longer haphazard, impulsive, indomitable boogey men. They are still very dangerous, but no longer have all the advantages. Formidable opponents, yes. Unstoppable, no.
Safe School Initiative
Following the multiple homicides at Columbine High School, the Secret Service and the Department of Education initiated a joint study of targeted school violence. Using the Secret Service’s experience and techniques of preventing attacks on public figures, and the Department of Education’s ability to modify that knowledge to fit into the framework of public education, the Safe School Initiative was published in mid-2002. The study examined every school shooting in the U.S. between 1974 and 2000, a total of 37 incidents.
The two federal agencies stated a common goal: “To develop accurate and useful information about prior school attacks that could help prevent some future ones from occurring.”
Although the added emphasis is mine, the full report is completely proactive in its approach to targeted school violence.
The Safe School Initiative identifies 10 key findings regarding school attacks:
1. Incidents of targeted violence are rarely sudden, impulsive acts.
2. Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea or plan of attack.
3. Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to the attacks.
4. There is no useful or accurate “profile” of attackers.
5. Most attackers engaged in behavior that caused concern in others prior to the attacks.
6. Many attackers had considered or attempted suicide.
7. Many attackers felt bullied or persecuted by others.
8. Most attackers had access to or used weapons prior to the attack.
9. In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
10. Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than police intervention.
Five years later, the shooter at Virginia Tech validated most of these key findings … again.
Because the nature of a college campus is interactive, school shooters do not exist in a vacuum. Like other students, they come into daily contact with the university’s services, faculty members and fellow students.
“Targeted violence stems from an interaction among the individual, the situation, the setting and the target,” the report stated.
School shooters are not invisible, and in fact they leak their psychosis in a number of ways. This leakage might be apparent in their writing, their fascination with firearms, or their negative interactions with others. It might include contact with mental health services or an involvement with campus law enforcement. The Safe School Initiative refers to this trace evidence as “knowable, understandable, and oftentimes discernible, process of thinking and behavior.”
“These findings suggest that students who carry out school attacks may consider possible targets; talk with others about their ideas and intentions; and record their thinking in diaries and journals or on a Web site. They may seek out weapons to use in the attack, and they may practice with these weapons in preparation for the attack. The actions of these attackers may be deliberate and occur over days and weeks, months or years,” the federal study reported.
More than 90 percent of all school shooters caused concern in others. That’s a significant indicator for threat assessment and response. It is knowable.
Almost 80 percent of school shooters considered or attempted suicide, according to the federal study. This is another significant indicator of a potential threat and another bit of knowable information, provided the resources are in place to use the intelligence.
No single bit of this trace evidence is an indicator of a potential lethal threat, but a collection of such behaviors is a warning. “Dangerous people rarely show all their symptoms to just one department or group on campus,” Peter F. Lake wrote in the June 29 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. “A professor may see a problem in an essay, the campus police may endure belligerent statements, a resident assistant may notice the student is a loner, the counseling center may notice that the student fails to appear for a follow-up visit. Acting independently, no department is likely to solve the problem.”
It is unfortunate that often the segments are only assembled in a post-catastrophic review.
Fix the Blame, Then Ask the Wrong Question
Cho’s mass murder of 32 people in April of this year marked the eighth anniversary of the Columbine killings. It’s been nine years since five students and faculty were murdered in Jonesboro, Arkansas. One shot dead in Fort Worth, Florida, in 2000, another in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, and two more in Cold Spring, Minnesota in 2003. Two years ago, nine were killed in Red Lake, Minnesota.
The number of victims continues to increase, but the response remains the same First, fix the blame. Blame it on the privacy laws. And the mental health agency. And the cops, of course. Blame the gun dealers and the university administration. Blame somebody.
If there is one commonality in the response to incidents of school violence, it’s that knee-jerk response to fix the blame, and quickly. Hold someone responsible. Get a scapegoat.
With the blame fixed, the next step is to ask the wrong question. The question should be “How do we prevent this from happening again?” Instead we ask “What can we do to be ready for the next one?”
Part of answering the wrong question involves suspending standard evaluations of solutions. Proffered solutions are judged on what plays well in the media, and gives students and their parents the warm fuzzies about campus safety.
Stampeding the Herd
Emergency text messaging is a good example of one of these dubious solutions.
Imagine packing 30,000 young adults into a relative small area, maybe 200 to 400 acres, with people clustered in rooms in multi-storied structures. Add vehicles and bicycles into the scene. Now send out an emergency text message to those 30,000 people at the same time. Evacuate? Lock down? What exactly do you say in a text message sent simultaneously to thousands of people?
Problem #1: This emergency notification system is based primarily on the Virginia Tech scenario in which two hours elapsed between shooting incidents. In almost half of all other school shootings, the incident was over in 15 minutes or less. So unless the next school shooter follows Cho’s strategy and stops to mail his ravings to a major TV network, emergency text messaging is not going to do much other than initiate near hysteria.
Problem #2: Frightened people do not flee in an orderly fashion. How do “active shooter” police teams travel to the incident site when thousands of panicked people have gridlocked the entire area?
Problem #3: With police and emergency personnel unable to reach the incident scene, how does an administrator decide that a lock down is the best course of action? Columbine was planned as a bombing, not a shooting. The next attacker may be more proficient at bomb-making and take advantage of a lock down to increase casualties.
Problem #4: How does an administrator prevent a repeat of the Jonesboro, Arkansas, incident in which the shooters deliberately created an evacuation situation in order to shoot students as they fled the school buildings? The primary supply of information – police and fire units – is overwhelmed by the human stampede fleeing the campus.
Problem #5: How do cell towers transmit 30,000 simultaneous text messages, along with the staggering amount of cellular traffic immediately following the transmission? Responding police and fire units will not only be unable to respond, but cell phone communication will be nearly impossible due to system overload.
Problem #6: How long will it take for a hacker to access the emergency text messaging system and gleefully panic an entire university campus?
Other Potential Calamities
The University of Nevada is considering deputizing and arming the faculty. Never mind that the job description for a professor is not remotely similar to that of a police officer.
The South Carolina legislature narrowly defeated a proposal to allow students carry guns on campus provided they have a concealed carry permit. Those who proposed legislation apparently ignored the fact that binge drinking, suicide and other poor decision-making behaviors of college students kill many students every semester without the help of firearms.
Florida State initiated a campus-wide audio alert system, but instead of using it exclusively for emergencies, the administration also plays the Seminole war chant and announces the opening of the add/drop time schedule. In addition, on hearing the audio alert, students are directed to go into buildings for more information – even though more than 90 percent of all school shootings occurred inside of school buildings.
The Right Question
What can we do to prevent another school shooting?
Not only is this the only responsible question, but preemption is far less expensive than reaction in money and lives lost. The Safe School Initiative provides the validity of prevention and intervention efforts. Initiative findings suggest that those charged with providing a safe campus focus “their efforts to formulate strategies for preventing these attacks in two principal areas: developing the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a risk of a targeted school attack; and employing the results of these risk evaluations, or “threat assessments,” in developing strategies to prevent potential school attacks from occurring.”
The response to targeted school violence is not limited to preparing for the next attack, but preempting the next attack.
Preparing to recover from a hurricane, earthquake, or pandemic is critical to any organization, especially those disasters which occur with little warning and few if any prevention measures. Preparing for such a catastrophe involving a college campus is also needed.
But unlike so-called “acts of God,” the human catastrophe that caused so many deaths at Virginia Tech occurred after three years of indicators and warnings, and a variety of missed opportunities to intervene … before the shooting started.
"Appeared in DRJ's Winter 2008 Issue"