The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center released its review of 2018 Mass Attacks in Public Places in July. While the full report can be viewed here, key points relevant to schools include:
- Three attacks (11%) were carried out at high schools.
- The findings emphasize that we can identify warning signs prior to an act of violence. While not every act of violence will be prevented, the report indicates that targeted violence may be preventable if appropriate systems are in place to identify concerning behaviors, gather information to assess the risk of violence, and utilize community resources to mitigate the risk.
- More than half (63%) of the attacks ended within 5 minutes from when the incident was initiated.
- Two-thirds of the attackers (67%) experienced mental health symptoms prior to their attacks. The most common symptoms observed were related to depression and psychotic symptoms, such as paranoia, hallucinations, or delusions. Suicidal thoughts were also observed. Nearly half of the attackers (44%) had been diagnosed with, or treated for, a mental illness prior to their attacks.
- The violence in this study resulted from a range of motives, with some attackers having multiple motives. In half of the incidents ( 52%), grievances appeared to be the main motivating factor. Beyond grievances, some motives were related to the attackers’ mental health symptoms (19%), while others were connected to ideological beliefs (7%). While only two of the attacks were primarily motivated by an ideology, nearly one-third of the attackers (30%) appeared to have subscribed to a belief system that has previously been associated with violence.
- Two-fifths of the attackers (41%) exhibited a fixation, defined as an intense or obsessive preoccupation with a person, activity, or belief to the point that it negatively impacted aspects of their lives. The behaviors that demonstrated these fixations included, but were not limited to, posting written material or videos online, stalking or harassing others, and filing lawsuits or complaints to police.
- Most (85%) attackers had at least one significant stressor occur in their lives in the five years preceding the attack.
- Nearly all of the attackers (93%) engaged in prior threatening or concerning communications. One-third had threatened someone (37%), including threats against the target in six cases (22%). All but four attackers (85%) made some type of communication that did not constitute a direct threat, but should have elicited concern.
- Most of the attackers (78%) in this report exhibited behaviors that caused concern in others. Those who were concerned had various degrees of association with the attackers, from those who were close to them, to strangers in the community who may have never met the attacker before. For the majority of the attackers (70%), the concern others felt was so severe that they feared specifically for the safety of the individual, themselves, or others.
- Because these acts are usually planned over a period of time, and the attackers often elicit concern from the people around them, there exists an opportunity to stop these incidents before they occur. Threat assessment is one of the most effective practices for prevention.
As you can see, this report echoes the previous year’s report and a great deal of research and literature on prevention efforts such as threat assessment. If you don’t already have a threat assessment protocol in place in your school district, perhaps the time is now.