Three ways to prevent school shootings, based on research

school shooting

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In the months leading up to his 2012 attack that killed 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut, a 20-year-old man displayed a cascade of anxious behaviors. There was worsening anorexia, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. His relationships deteriorated, and he became determined on mass murders.

In 2013, an 18-year-old boy was angry at school and threatened to kill his debate coach. Concerned, the school’s threat assessment team interviewed him, rating him as a low-level risk for violence. But three months after the assessment, he shot and killed a classmate and himself on school grounds in Centennial, Colorado.

By 2018, the 19-year-old had more than 40 documented encounters with law enforcement and was a threat to others and weapons purchases. After his mother died in 2017, family friends contacted law enforcement and expressed concern about his behavior. In 2018, he carried out a shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida.

The three perpetrators displayed disturbed behavior before their attacks – and those around them missed opportunities to intervene.

We are sociologists at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder. We study the circumstances leading to violence in which an attacker chooses a target – such as a person, group or school – in advance.

We find that the same anxious behavior patterns emerge among the perpetrators, but not all. We also find that peers, family members, school staff, law enforcement officials, and others often miss many opportunities to intervene with the perpetrator before the tragedy.

Much of the public discussion about preventing school shootings focuses on whether and how to limit people’s access to firearms. While these efforts are still important, over the past 30 years, our work has identified other strategies that can reduce the risk of violence. Here are three evidence-based steps schools and communities can take to prevent violence.

1. Teach students and adults to report warning signs

Most school shooters have shown anxious behavior and communicated their plan to cause harm before their fatal attack.

These problematic behaviors and communications provide opportunities for adults to step in, for students to speak up, and for people to help a student who may be in psychological or emotional distress.

But the warning signs of violence can be difficult to distinguish from other types of behavior problems, especially among adolescents.

According to the US Secret Service, the 10 most common anxiety behaviors among school attackers are:

  • threats to the target or others, and intent to attack, including on social media
  • intense or increasing anger
  • interest in weapons
  • sadness, depression or isolation
  • changes in behavior or appearance
  • suicide or self-harm
  • resort to arms or violence
  • complaints about bullying
  • concerns about grades or attendance
  • harassing others

Attackers typically exhibit five or more of these related behaviors.

Education programs and training that encourage people to share their concerns and seek help for those engaging in anxious behavior could improve safety in schools and communities.

2. Develop and publicize anonymous tip lines around the clock

People need a way to safely report their concerns. Tip systems include websites, phone numbers to call or text, email addresses, and apps. They allow students and others to anonymously, or confidentially, share their concerns about another’s threatening behavior or communication.

These tips can make people less hesitant to report situations that worry them or that they think are none of their business, such as bullying, threats, drug use, or someone talking about suicide.

Several states have modeled their tips after Safe2Tell Colorado, which is a 24/7/365 anonymous live reporting system created after the Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999. Safe2Tell brings tips to local law enforcement officials and school leaders, who investigate and triage each tip. These law enforcement officers and school leaders determine the nature of the concern, along with the most appropriate response.

A 2011 study found that the system helped stop 28 potential school attacks, but that research has not been updated in the years since. Recent Safe2Tell reports indicate that the system helps students get help for significant mental health needs.

During the 2021-22 school year, for example, Safe2Tell received 19,364 reports. Of these, 14% related to suicide threats, 7% to bullying, and 7% to welfare checks. Of the 84 self-reports of mental health that year, 32% received counseling services, 32% were informed by their parents, 22% received an official well-being check, 12% were hospitalized at least briefly, and 10% were hospitalized. suicidality assessment given; some got more than one of those answers.

These types of interventions are known to prevent school violence. The National Police Institute is a non-profit organization based in Arlington, Virginia that maintains the Averted Schools Violence Database. As of 2021, the database contained case information for 171 averted attacks, 88 of which were first-time peers of the potential attacker.

3. Conduct behavioral threat assessment and management

As soon as people report their concerns, law enforcement officials, school staff and mental health professionals must evaluate the reports and decide how to handle the information, and the people involved.

One method, called behavioral threat assessment and management, seeks to identify the cause of the anxious behavior – such as grievance, psychological trauma, or mental health concerns. In schools, this process encourages the threat assessment team to assess the risk of violence and to put together a plan to support the student, and to monitor him/her, his/her behavior and communication.

Schools that use this approach are less likely to simply suspend or expel the students they evaluate. This means that students can still access services and support through their school, rather than being excluded from it.

This process also helps distinguish between situations where a student has made a threat but does not intend to harm and situations where the student is a real threat.

Once the team has assessed the threat, they can share the results – and the action plan – with other school staff to ensure that everyone knows how to handle the student and their behaviour. The school staff then also know how, and to whom, to report any actions or statements of concern from the student afterwards.

It is important for all school personnel to know that the federal student privacy law allows this type of information sharing as it relates to school and personal safety. Some school leaders are reluctant to share the plan because they are confused about this provision of the law.

For this reason, and because resources may be limited at school or may not extend to the student’s home life, the action plans that follow behavioral threat assessments are not always done properly. So staff may have completed the assessment paperwork, but not the actual work to support, manage or monitor the student’s needs.

Americans are not helpless against school violence. Research has identified solutions. We believe it is time to act to implement these solutions consistently and effectively.

Provided by An Comhrá

This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The conversation

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