5 School Violence Early Warning Signs

Students are returning to in-person classrooms, and some officials have a new set of concerns

Reports of targeted school violence can rock the psyche of our nation. The horror of violent attacks in these spaces meant for safety and education is unthinkable. But, unfortunately, it’s part of our reality that we cannot ignore.

As students return to school this year, administrators, school resource officers, and law enforcement note the potential for an increase in school violence incidents.

It’s a situation where many students are returning to school buildings after long months of social distancing. We’ve already seen a dramatic increase in reports of student depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, and other mental health issues related to the effects of the COVID-19 shut down. At the same time, an uptick in incidents of discriminatory, threatening and/or violent communications have also been observed. Many wonder if the return to school will create a tinderbox of violent behavior and how they can stop it before tragedy strikes.

The United States Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security have partnered to research targeted violence against schools for more than 20 years. The most recent report, published in March of 2021 and titled Averting Targeted School Violence: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Plots Against Schools, examines the social and behavioral elements of known targeted K-12 school violence plots.

The findings in the report give us a glimpse into some of the most telling school violence early warning signs that schools need to stay vigilant for. In many cases, detecting problems early on not only saves the lives of would-be victims but can also put the would-be perpetrator on a better path to mental and physical well-being.

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5 School Violence Early Warning Signs

One of the study’s key findings reported in Averting Targeted School Violence is that people contemplating school violence “often exhibit observable behaviors” (page 3).

Here, we’ll take some of the observable behaviors paired with identified motives to suggest that detecting school violence early warning signs and averting tragedy can happen at a much earlier stage than thwarting a plot. Moreover, such steps can lead to better outcomes for students who need mental health support and other resources versus waiting until law enforcement needs to be involved.

1. Bullying

The report finds that 21% of school violence plotters were motivated by revenge for being bullied by their peers.

Bullying is an issue that continues to plague schools across the country. It can lead to many issues for students, including lower academic performance, drug and/or alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation or behavior.

This report indicates that stopping and resolving bullying in schools can also prevent targeted school violence. While bullying itself shouldn’t be labeled as a school violence early warning sign, research shows that relentless bullying is certainly a key contributor to school violence.

2. Suicidal Behaviors

13% of targeted school violence plotters are noted to be suicidal. Further, the study finds that 37% of plotters “express a willingness to die, intended to commit suicide, or planned to commit suicide by-cop.”

It’s important to understand that suicidal ideation was rarely the sole factor in students’ plot to carry out an attack. Instead, bullying was the most frequent early warning sign among suicidal plotters, seeking fame or notoriety coming in second.

One particularly heartbreaking story is shared in the report to illustrate the overlap of bullying and suicidal motivators:(page 13)

“A 15-year-old male stole a shotgun and rifle from his grandfather and planned to shoot his classmates the following day. The plotter experienced relentless bullying at his school in the form of other students knocking him down, pushing him into lockers, and punching him. He wanted to die by suicide, but not in a way that would make his mother feel bad. He thought that killing other students would allow him to accomplish this goal, because his family would hate him instead of feeling sad.”

Like bullying, suicidal behaviors don’t indicate on their own that a student is going to commit a targeted attack. Many, many students are unfortunately struggling with self-harm and suicide in our schools. This is not meant to suggest that all, or even a significant number, are plotting school attacks.

But, taken in context with other potential risk factors, school administrators, counselors, and other resources should take care to identify students who are struggling with suicidal behaviors. Doing so will not only help the student in crisis but can avert an even larger tragedy.
One particularly heartbreaking story is shared in the report to illustrate this overlap of bullying and suicidal motivators:

3. Life Stressors

According to Averting Targeted School Violence, 91% of school violence plotters experienced some life stressors in the five years leading up to their plotting. Additionally, 81% experienced stressors in the past year or were ongoing when their plotting was discovered.

The report identifies seven known types of stressors experienced by plotters:

  1. Family: 58% experienced family stressors, including separation or divorce, substance abuse in the home, and violence or abuse in the home.
  2. Social: 51% experienced social stressors, such as bullying—particularly a persistent pattern of bullying—and stress related to peers or romantic partners.
  3. Academic: 44% experienced stressors such as failing grades, suspensions, and expulsions
  4. Criminal/Judicial: 23% experienced stressors related to criminal activity such as arrests, charges, and other activity that did not lead to formal charges.
  5. Changing Schools: 19% of plotters had changed schools within the year leading up to the discovery of their attack plot
  6. General Personal: 19% of plotters experienced stressors that the report describes as “unique or personal in nature and therefore not as easily categorized.” General personal stressors include general frustration with their personal life, homelessness, and experiencing sexual assault.
  7. Physical Health: 9% of school violence plotters experienced some physical health stressor. Some were recent, while others were long-term, such as fetal alcohol syndrome and hearing loss.

4. Obsession With Violence

67% of plotters were found to have an obsession with violence. The report indicates this type of behavior includes researching prior school attacks, communications of violent themes, an inappropriate interest in consuming violent and graphic content, watching animal cruelty videos, and an inappropriate interest in weapons.

Of particular note are measurable interests in the Columbine High School attack and Hilter/Nazism. 40% of plotters exhibited an unusually keen interest in the Columbine attack. Behaviors included researching and referencing the attack, studying the tactics that were used, watching documentaries about it, or playing video games about the attackers. Some plotters also consumed movies and/or books they knew the Columbine attackers liked, dressed similarly to them, talked with friends about them, and wrote about them in their journals.

21% of plotters showed a particular interest in Hilter, Nazism, and/or white supremacy. This included behaviors such as reading Mein Kampf, collecting Nazi paraphernalia, drawing swastikas and other Nazi imagery, and shouting “white power” in school buildings.

The obsession with violence and violent themes can be observed in plotters in a variety of areas. These include internet searches, social media, gaming, and/or other online interactions, and communications with other students.

5. Concerning Communications

The report finds that other students and/or family members are usually in the best position to identify an imminent school violence threat. This is because, as a plotter gets closer to turning ideas into action, they will usually communicate their intent to someone in at least one of a variety of ways. For example, 94% of plotters shared their intention for attacking in some way.

For example, in 19% of cases, they warned their friends about the upcoming attack so that they could stay out of harm’s way. In some cases, plotters have reached out to friends to try to recruit them as co-conspirators.

Concerning communications not specifically related to their attack plan were also observed in the study. 74% of plotters communicated in written, visual, verbal, and/or online channels. 41% of communications identified as “concerning” by the report include a fascination with violent acts, homicide, weapons, and ideologies/beliefs often associated with violence—such as an admiration for the Columbine attackers.

40% of plotters expressed concerning communications related to threats of harm to others, and 23% referenced suicide, self-harm, drug use, the concept of death, and/or a final message.

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Monitoring School Technology for Early Warning Signs

It is important to reiterate that any of these five school violence early warning signs taken alone cannot be directly connected to a school violence plot. However, considering multiple risk factors—even some not discussed here—should provide a basis to at least conduct a risk assessment.

In many of these cases, even if an imminent plot isn’t discovered, it can help identify a student in crisis and help them get the support they need to hopefully produce a positive outcome for the health and wellbeing of the student.

Many schools now use different types of monitoring technology to help detect school violence, early warning signs and other student cyber safety risks, and toxic online behavior.

These technologies can help give administrators and resource officers a glimpse into students’ online behaviors and communications. But, ultimately, family and peers are still in the best position to identify and report a targeted school attack. Further, school violence early warning signs often happen across various channels, most of which schools have no ability to monitor from a technology standpoint.

This doesn’t mean that monitoring technology can’t help. And the chance of preventing any tragedy is worth it.

For example, cyberbullying monitoring technology and procedures can help identify students experiencing one of the most common underlying risk factors in targeted school violence very early on.

Further, technology can be a helping hand in student suicide prevention with self-harm monitoring that alerts school resources when a student may be in crisis.

Whether or not either of these types of incidents would have ever led to a school attack is quite beside the point. Monitoring for students in crisis is better for life, health, well-being, and education individually. If used properly, it can also help improve school culture and the health of your larger community.

Ultimately, it is in the child’s best interest to address mental health, family, and/or social issues long before school violence intent arises—and before law enforcement needs to get involved.

Monitoring technology will usually also pick up risk factors for various types of school violence and student safety concerns, including potential communications of an imminent threat.

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