Key Points from 2018 FBI Report on Pre-Attack Behaviors

FBI 2018 Report Pre-Attack Behaviors

In 2014, the FBI published a report titled A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013. The report focused on the circumstances of 160 active shooter events that had occurred from 2000-2013. In July, 2018, the FBI released the second phase of the study entitled A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States between 2000 and 2013.

This report details behaviors and warning signs that occurred before an attack, providing readers with increased awareness of what to look for in our own settings. In the aftermath of an active shooter incident, we often listen as the media dissects the risk factors and warning signs that may have been missed. It might begin to sound as if there is a consistent profile of the active shooter.

I want to stress one thing: experts and authorities are still very clear on the fact that there is no profile of an active shooter.

While it is true that certain behaviors and characteristics appear in multiple individuals that have perpetrated this type of violence, each situation must be assessed on its own. An assessment is valid for a moment in time. Risk will either be increased or decreased as circumstances and individuals change. It is this fact that gives us hope. When we identify threatening situations and individuals early, we can intervene and reduce, or even eliminate, the likelihood of violence.

What the study tells us

The key findings of this phase II study that I believe are most pertinent to those of us who work in schools are:

  • The 63 active shooters in the study did not appear to be uniform in any way such that they could be readily identified prior to attacking based on demographics alone.
  • Active shooters take time to plan and prepare for the attacks, with 77% of subjects spending a week or longer planning their attack and 46% spending a week or longer procuring the means for the attack.
  • The FBI could only verify that 25% of active shooters in the study had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness. Of those diagnosed, only 3 had been diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. The FBI further states that, “declarations that all active shooters must simply be mentally ill are misleading and unhelpful.”
  • Active shooters were typically experiencing multiple stressors, an average of 3.6, in the year before they attacked.
  • On average, each active shooter displayed 4 to 5 concerning behaviors over time that were observable to others around the shooter. The most frequently occurring concerning behaviors were related to mental health, problematic interpersonal interactions and leakage of violent intent. In 56% of cases, the first incidence of such behavior occurred more than 2 years before the attack.
  • For active shooters under age 18, school peers and teachers were more likely to observe concerning behaviors than family members. In 12 student shooters studied, 92% of cases involved a schoolmate noticing concerning behavior before the attack.
  • When concerning behavior was observed, the most common responses were:
    • communicate directly with shooter 83%
    • do nothing 54%
    • report to a non-law enforcement authority 51%
    • discuss with a friend or family member 49%
    • report to law enforcement 41%.
  • In cases where the shooter’s primary grievance could be identified, 33% were related to an adverse interpersonal action (or perceived action) against the shooter and 16% were related to an employment action (or perceived action) against the shooter.

If you’d like to read more of the report, you can get it here.

Next steps for schools

If you don’t have a threat assessment team in place, I urge you to make it a priority this school year. Threat assessment is a research-based prevention and school safety strategy that will help you identify and intervene with not only potentially violent students, but students who are struggling on many levels. Those students need our help. We can’t help them if we don’t know who they are.

I’ve trained schools across the country to implement this practice. Is your school next? Contact me here to find out how I can help.

I was just about to ask…..

Are we becoming too complacent

I was just about to ask, “are we becoming too complacent?” In fact, that was the original title of this article. I recently noticed that we, as a society, might have allowed ourselves to put some aspects of school safety on the back burner because we hadn’t seen any major safety breaches in the past couple of years. I had begun to receive fewer requests for school safety and violence threat assessment training. Friends and acquaintances who work in schools had been commenting that security was getting a bit lax in their respective buildings.

And then, it happened. Before I could finish this article, there were 2 incidents…the stuff of our worst nightmares. Honestly, I knew it would.

On August 28, a 16-year old boy shot and killed 2 women and injured 4 others in a small community library in Clovis, NM. On September 13, a 15-year old boy shot and killed another student and wounded 3 others before being subdued by a heroic school employee.

I suspect we aren’t complacent anymore.

My phone has started to ring. But, it is not school administrators who are calling me. Rather, the calls come from reporters around the country who want to know how we can prevent this from happening again.

A recent Gallup poll called the Work and Education poll, was conducted in early August with a random sample of 233 parents of K-12 children. Gallup has administered this poll annually since 1977. This year, 24% of parents reported worrying about their child’s physical safety at school. The percentage has not been this low since August 2012, just a few months before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. After the Sandy Hook tragedy, parental fear rose to 33%.

Historically, this particular poll has shown that parental fear has increased following a school shooting:

  • After the Columbine High School shooting, parental fear rose to 55%, the highest in the history of the poll
  • After the Santana High School shooting in Santee, CA, parental fear rose to 45%
  • After the shooting at a Pennsylvania Amish schoolhouse, parental fear rose to 35%

The poll also asked parents, “Have any of your school-aged children expressed any worry or concern about feeling unsafe at their school when they go back to school this fall?” Just 6% of parents reported that their children expressed concern regarding their safety while at school, the lowest number in 18 years of survey administration. The average has been 11%.

I am certainly not saying that I want parents, school staff members and students to live fearfully. I simply want to encourage those connected to schools to be mindful that we must continue to employ the school safety and prevention measures we have adopted, even when we are experiencing a positive, less violent cycle.

Perhaps now is a good time to review your tolerance and bully prevention policies and programming, and take a hard look at school climate. This might be the year to administer a school climate survey to students, parents and staff members. We have recently witnessed several high-profile incidents related to hate and intolerance. While we cannot always control what happens in the larger world, we can foster a sense of belonging and ownership within our school communities.

Has your school assembled and trained a threat assessment team? A referral to this team is vital when students or staff members have concerns about behavior or threats. When asked whether warning signs had been missed in the recent Washington shooting, Sheriff Knezovich commented, “they are always missed.” While I’m not in complete agree with the sheriff, here’s how this can happen:

When we don’t have a process in place to gather extensive data and compare notes with others, each behavior witnessed seems like an isolated incident. We must put all the pieces of the puzzle together to make a true and accurate assessment of violence risk.

Do you have your threat assessment team in place? Have all team members received high quality training? I train school staff members using the very model employed by the FBI and Secret Service to assess threats. If you’d like to know more, simply contact me here.

For a quick recap of some key warning signs, you may want to listen to this recent radio podcast. For an extensive list of warning signs, read this.

School Threat Assessment FAQ

School Threat Assessment FAQ

I frequently get asked questions about how the practice of violence threat assessment applies to schools. Threat assessment is seen as the emerging standard of care for assessing concerning behavior and threats. It’s an important safety practice that should be in place in all U.S. schools.

Q. What is a threat assessment team? Do we need one?

A. Threat assessment teams are comprised of staff members representing a number of disciplines. In a school setting, this includes at least one administrator, counselor, psychologist, social worker and school resource officer or local police representative. Each of these individuals brings specific expertise to the team, which is vital to a thorough and accurate threat assessment. Threat assessment teams are required in preK-12 schools in Virginia, and the state of Oregon has recently called for a consistent statewide threat assessment protocol for schools. If you want to be sure you’ve done everything you can to keep your students and staff safe, you need a threat assessment team.

ta-team

Q. How are threat assessment teams used?

A. When someone’s behavior or words indicate that the person may be struggling to cope with a situation, or shows signs of violent ideation, the team will evaluate the threat and develop a management plan that keeps everyone safe and assists the troubled person in resolving the difficulties.

Q. Can you explain the process of assessing a threat?

A. The process of assessing a threat includes a review of multiple areas of a person’s life, past and present behavior, verbal, written or otherwise communicated threats, family dynamics, social functioning, risk factors, triggers, behaviors indicating movement along the pathway to violence, and violence inhibitors. The team will meet to review the information they already have, determine what is still needed for a thorough assessment, and divide responsibilities for gathering additional information and interviewing others (teachers, parents, students). The team will then reconvene in a timely manner to complete the assessment and develop immediate safety and intervention plans along with a long-term management plan. A threat assessment identifies risk of violence at a given point in time and must be updated as new information is gathered and discounted. It often continues for an extended period of time.

Q. Have threat assessment teams been proven to avert violence?

A. The model of threat assessment that I use in schools is the same model used by the FBI and U.S. Secret Service to assess threats to public figures. This model is the best tool we have available to investigate and mitigate potential threats. While it is always difficult to prove that a practice has prevented something that did not happen, we know of at least 200 serious acts of school violence that have been prevented by someone coming forward with a concern that is followed up by  threat assessment and a management plan.

Q. Do threat assessment team members need specific training?

A. All team members should be trained specifically in the warning signs, best practices, procedures, and tools used for violence threat assessment. Training should include a thorough explanation of behaviors and what it is typically behind them, along with signs, activities and items that could signify a violent mindset. It’s important that this training include hands on practice with threat assessment tools, case study analysis, and support and follow up for the team as they work through their first few assessments.

Q. How will people know what to report to our threat assessment team?

A. While working with school threat assessment teams, I help them develop a plan and a framework for training students, staff and parents on what to watch out for, warning signs of both suicide and violence, and reporting procedures. It’s imperative that we get this information out to these individuals, as it is most often the swift action of student, parent or staff members that results in averted violence.

Q. Where can I find more information about school threat assessment?

A. There are a number of excellent resources available to help you. For starters, I recommend reading the publications Early Warning Timely Response and Threat Assessment in Schools.  You can also learn more about the threat assessment process here.

If you have questions about the process or want to know how to get started, please feel free to contact me.

Finally, for an inexpensive training tool for your entire staff, consider this.

The Problem with Threat Assessment Checklists

The Problem with Threat Assessment ChecklistsThere are a number of violence threat assessment checklists and tools available to guide an assessment of someone who may pose a danger to him/herself or others. In fact, it is vital that we use such tools to ensure that we are gathering the most relevant data on an individual’s history, social supports, past and current behaviors, possible threats, mental health, and a number of other variables. Yet, there is a problem with violence threat assessment checklists.

Checklists alone will not answer all of our questions.

A checklist cannot clearly tell us what type of risk is posed by a person others avoid because they feel nervous and fearful around him or her. A checklist won’t explain what’s happening we feel discomfort or unease, but can’t put our finger on the reason.

To perform a thorough violence threat assessment, we need to have a keen understanding of what the threats and behaviors mean to the person of concern. We should be familiar with the violence escalation process. We must have a number of trained professionals at the table to gather missing data and interpret the findings of our assessment. We’ll want to be cognizant of the group dynamics that can affect our assessment. We need to practice our threat assessment skills.

The stakes of assessing violence risk are high, and to minimize risk and liability, we need to develop the skills necessary to do so as effectively and accurately as possible. Equally important, we’ll sleep better at night knowing we are using a solid practice based on the exact model used by the Secret Service and FBI to assess and manage threats.

Checklists are important, and there are a number of excellent tools available to you. But, they should not stand alone. Your threat assessment skills will be much better if you obtain adequate training and practice before using them. The tools will guide your inquiry, but much will be missed without a deeper knowledge of the threat assessment process, risk factors and warning signs associated with targeted violence.

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What’s the Best Threat Assessment Tool?

The Best Threat Assessment Tool

The best threat assessment tool is awareness. Being aware of our surroundings and paying attention to anything that seems out of place, out of context, or causes us to hesitate, is a vital tool for threat assessment.

According to Gavin de Becker, our intuition informs us at all times, even when we are busy attending to other business. Those feelings of fear, apprehension, hesitation, and doubt are signals from our intuition that something is wrong and we need to pay attention. Too often, we ignore or minimize these signals.

This week, I’d like to ask you to pay close attention to your surroundings and the nuances of others’ behavior. Listen to your intuition and see what you can learn.

You might notice some unusual activity in an area of your school that is normally off limits. Perhaps you notice something out of place, someone you don’t know in the parking lot, or behavior that seems unusual.

We need to be able to recognize that which is typical of someone’s behavior, so we can notice when something atypical is happening. If a previously calm and steady student, parent or staff member suddenly erupts in anger or becomes increasingly combative or agitated, we are being given clues that demand our attention.

Is someone complaining that  he or she is “always a victim”? Is a middle school student reporting increased bullying?  Does a freshman boy seem more withdrawn than the last time you spoke with him? Is your English teacher experiencing increased work, family or other stress?

Make attention your best tool for one week, and let me know what you learn by contacting me here. I look forward to hearing from you!

If you have found this post helpful, please forward to your friends and colleagues. If you have had this post forwarded to you, you can get your own copy by subscribing here.

An Interview with: Mark Follman

An Interview with: Mark Follman

Mark Follman is the national affairs editor at Mother Jones. Since 2012, his in-depth investigations into mass shootings, child gun deaths, and the financial costs of gun violence have been honored with multiple journalism awards. Mark is a former editor of Salon and a cofounder of the MediaBugs project. His reporting and commentary have also appeared in the New York Times, The AtlanticRolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and on Fox News, MSNBC, and NPR‘s All Things Considered.

In July 2012, Mark and his team at Mother Jones created the first open-source database on mass shootings in America. Mark’s team also learned that a large number of mass shooters have modeled their attacks on previous mass shooting incidents. His recent article, Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter, was the cover story for the November-December issue of Mother Jones.

Mark agreed to talk with me about the important issue of gun violence in the U.S., along with his in-depth investigation into the practice of Violence Threat Assessment and how it seeks to prevent mass shooting.

I understand that you are the national affairs editor at Mother Jones. How would you describe your role within the organization?

As the national affairs editor at Mother Jones, I help run our coverage of national news events. I also oversee other investigative projects that are similar to the investigation into mass shootings. For the past 3 years, I have spent the majority of my time researching and writing about various aspects of gun violence.

What sparked your interest in writing about child gun deaths, the cost of gun violence and mass shootings?

I began focusing more intensively on the topic of gun violence after the July 2012 mass shooting at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora Colorado. I wanted to know how frequently this type of attack occurred and found that no database existed. I wanted to know more about who was carrying out these crimes, how and why. So, I set out to answer those questions, beginning with building the database.

What are the most significant and/or surprising things you’ve learned about mass shootings and gun violence?

We soon learned that public gun massacres, while still relatively rare, have increased in frequency in recent years. There is some debate around that, and it is focused primarily on the definition of “mass shooting.” We focused on gathering data on seemingly indiscriminate mass shootings that took place in public, in which four or more victims were killed. This is consistent with the FBI’s long-standing definition of mass murder, though there is really no official definition for “mass shooting.” We did not include family/domestic murders in private homes or gang-related attacks—those are distinct crimes with different policy implications.

Our conclusion that the incidence of mass shooting has increased over the past several years, has since been corroborated by the FBI Active Shooter study and an independent study conducted by Harvard researchers using the data we collected.

It was also striking to learn that the vast majority of mass shooting perpetrators, more than 80 percent of them, had used legally obtained firearms.

Another important finding was that many mass shooters have serious mental health problems, and some show signs of that, prior to attacking. But there is a crucial point to keep in mind here: This is not the same as a causal relationship between mental illness and violence. A large body of research shows that most people with mental illness are not violent. What we found was that many mass shooters had mental health issues, along with many other factors that contributed to their actions. But mental illness by itself is in no way predictive of who might commit a mass shooting.

Have your goals changed at all since you began writing about gun violence? If so, how?

There is still a lot that we don’t know about our nation’s problems with gun violence, which are significant, to say the least. Research into gun violence has been suppressed for nearly two decades, primarily due to politics surrounding the issue. This lack of awareness and understanding exists even in law enforcement, education, and mental health circles. This keeps me motivated to continue to shed more light on problems of gun violence through data-driven reporting.

Is there anything else you would like my readers to know?

It’s difficult to prove that a practice is effective at preventing violence, if that violence doesn’t in fact occur. How do you measure that? You’re proving a negative. But from what I’ve learned about threat assessment, while it is not a solution on its own—clearly the availability of guns and access to mental health care have to be part of comprehensively addressing mass shootings—it seems to be a promising strategy in at least some cases. Having attended the ATAP (Association of Threat Assessment Professionals) conference this past August, I learned a lot from listening to experts among the 700+ member attendees. I think it’s interesting that threat assessment teams are now required in three states for public higher education institutions (Virginia, Connecticut and Illinois), and in one state (Virginia) for Pre K-12 schools, with the possibility of another state on the horizon (Oregon). That suggests it’s increasingly being seen as a useful tool for combatting this problem.

I have been surprised at how powerful the response to the article has been, from the general-public, media, law enforcement, mental health professionals, and educators. I think there is a lot of desire to have the sense that something can be done to help stop mass shootings, that it’s not just a hopeless problem that will go on and on. Some of my colleagues in the media have responded quite positively to the idea that they might want to rethink their role in the copycat effect. Knowing what we know now from forensic investigations of mass shooters and how the media can affect them, I think this is a valuable conversation for us to be having.

I want to express my sincere thanks to Mark for taking the time to share what he’s learned with my readers. If you have not yet read Mark’s enlightening article, Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter, I highly recommend doing so. Mark can be contacted at mfollman@motherjones.com.

Remembering Sandy Hook

Remembering Sand Hook

We all remember those dark days of December, 2012 when innocent lives were lost due to an unthinkable act of violence. The 3-year anniversary of this tragedy has just passed, and our hearts go out to those who were intimately affected. Their lives have been forever changed.

Learning from the Sandy Hook tragedy

In this post, I’m going to focus on what I believe is the single most important take-away from the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy:  There is an established and effective practice that can help prevent future tragedies. The practice of violence threat assessment allows us to identify and attend to the warning signs before we get to the point of another school shooting. It is precisely the model used by the FBI and Secret Service to evaluate threats and warning signs.

In the days, weeks and months following a targeted act of violence, we start to peel back the layers and acknowledge the many signs and missed opportunities. When we notice, assess, and intervene in behaviors that seem “off” or match those we know are indicators of possible mental illness, lack of coping skills, violent ideology, suicide or violence, we are taking action to prevent violence from occurring.

By attending to the warning signs, communicating with others, gathering information that helps us form a complete picture, and implementing plans for both safety and intervention, we are making great strides toward preventing violence. To learn more about how violence threat assessment works, simply click here.

Threat Assessment Explained

TA Explained

When concerns about an individual’s words or behavior indicate that he or she may pose a danger to others, someone in your school district will be asked to judge whether the person does indeed pose a risk of violence.

Because this is a high-stakes assessment, school districts are advised to assess as a team rather than rely on one or two individuals to make the assessment. Violence threat assessment is a solid method for making this guided professional judgment. It is required of pre-K – 12 schools in the states of Virginia and Connecticut.

Threat Assessment Explained

The practice of violence threat assessment differs from the types of assessment used by forensic mental health professionals to determine the level of risk posed by an individual. Those practices, while effective with individuals, are not necessarily the best tools to prevent the type of targeted violence that occurs in school attacks. Violence threat assessment is designed not to predict, but to prevent violence. The focus is on four things: keeping everyone safe, preventing violence, solving the problem or grievance of the person of concern and getting help for the concerning individual. When we do this, we interrupt the pathway toward violence and change the outcome.

School threat assessment teams should be comprised of one or two building administrators, a school psychologist, social worker, school counselor, school resource officer, school nurse, and mental health professional. Team members need specialized training in the concepts, procedures, and tools used to conduct a threat assessment. While most of the professionals on the team will have a solid knowledge of suicide and violence indicators, a threat assessment views the warning signs of violence somewhat differently, and takes into consideration a number of additional variables and dynamics that have been associated with targeted violence. It is through the study of past incidents and attackers that we are now able to identify concerning behaviors and intervene before an incident occurs.

Threat assessment team training includes an in-depth look at violence risk factors, warning signs, threats, inhibitors, triggers, and the pathway to violence. Participants learn to distinguish between making a threat and posing a threat and between “howling” and “hunting” behavior. They learn that the troubling behavior and words of a concerning person are considered “leakage” of intent, and will commonly be seen and heard up to several years before an attack. They are indicators of a preoccupation with planning and preparation for violence.

A team approach to violence threat assessment is vital because it allows us to gather data from a number of sources and put it together like a puzzle. It is only after this has been done that we can feel confident in our assessment. School districts must have in place a reporting system and assessment team that follows up. Without this communication system in place, each potential red flag appears to be an isolated incident. As a result, we may not give the individual or potential threat the attention that is warranted. When we communicate, a picture begins to emerge that will cause us to either feel less concern, or more concern, about an individual and his/her movement toward violence. That picture will dictate our next steps and actions.

It is important that all other school staff members receive training in observable warning signs and the school’s specific process for communicating and investigating concerns. These staff members work with students every day and are in a position to notice and report red flags as soon as they see them.

Violence threat assessment is an ever-evolving practice. The model we use in schools is also the model used by the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI to assess threats. While no tool is 100% accurate or perfect, it is the best tool we have at this time. When schools put this practice into place, they can begin to breathe a little easier, knowing they are doing everything they can to prevent violence and harm to the school community.

Can We Predict Violence? Can We Prevent It?

 

Preventing ViolenceA number of theories about preventing violence have made their way into the media over the past few years.

When I teach about violence threat assessment, we discuss the distinction between dangerousness as a trait and making a prediction that violence is likely to be perpetrated by a specific individual. We also talk about what threat assessment is and what it isn’t: it’s about preventing violence rather than predicting it.

The American Psychological Association has posted a series of scholarly articles on the prevention of gun violence. The following excerpt is from a more extensive article written by Dewey Cornell, PhD, and Nancy G. Guerra, EdD, and addresses this topic. 

“Research has moved the field beyond the assessment of “dangerousness” as a simple individual characteristic applicable in all cases to recognize that predictive efforts must consider a range of personal, social, and situational factors that can lead to different forms of violent behavior in different circumstances. Moreover, risk assessment has expanded to include concepts of risk management and interventions aimed at reducing risk

In making predictions about the risk for mass shootings, there is no consistent psychological profile or set of warning signs that can be used reliably to identify such individuals in the general population. A more promising approach is the strategy of behavioral threat assessment, which is concerned with identifying and intervening with individuals who have communicated threats of violence or engaged in behavior that clearly indicates planning or preparation to commit a violent act. A threat assessment approach recognizes that individuals who threaten targeted violence are usually troubled, depressed, and despondent over their circumstances in life. A threat assessment leads to interventions intended to reduce the risk of violence by taking steps to address the problem that underlies the threatening behavior. Such problems can range from workplace conflicts to schoolyard bullying to serious mental illness. One of the most influential threat assessment models was developed by the U.S. Secret Service (Fein et al., 2002; Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzelski, 2002) and has been adapted for use in schools, colleges, business settings, and the U.S. military.

The limited ability to make accurate predictions of violence has led some to question whether prevention is possible. This is a common misconception, because prevention does not require prediction of a specific individual’s behavior. For example, public health campaigns have reduced problems ranging from lung cancer to motor vehicle accidents by identifying risk factors and promoting safer behaviors even though it is not possible to predict whether a specific individual will develop lung cancer or have a motor vehicle accident (Mozaffarian, Hemenway, & Ludwig, 2013). A substantial body of scientific evidence identifies important developmental, familial, and social risk factors for violence. In addition, an array of rigorously tested psychological and educational interventions facilitate healthy social development and reduce aggressive behavior by teaching social skills and problem-solving strategies. It is important that policymakers and stakeholders recognize the value of prevention.

Prevention measures also should be distinguished from security measures and crisis response plans. Prevention must begin long before a gunman comes into a school or shopping center. Prevention efforts are often conceptualized as taking place on primary, secondary, and tertiary levels:

* Primary prevention (also called universal prevention) consists of efforts to promote healthy development in the general population. An example would be a curriculum to teach all children social skills to resist negative peer influences and resolve conflicts peacefully.

* Secondary prevention (also called selective prevention) involves assistance for individuals who are at increased risk for violence. Mentoring programs and conflict-mediation services are examples of such assistance.

*Tertiary prevention (also called indicated prevention) consists of intensive services for individuals who have engaged in some degree of aggressive behavior and could benefit from efforts to prevent a recurrence or escalation of aggression. Programs to rehabilitate juvenile offenders are examples.”

I believe we need to focus on prevention, and be prepared to mitigate harm if those efforts are not enough. If you’d like to learn more, simply click here.