Every time there is an initial report of a mass school shooting by a student or former student – as we had again in Parkland, Florida on February 14 – I find myself anticipating and listing the “red flags” and warning signs that were missed as they emerge in the press and online.
After decades in my line of work, it’s just a force of habit – and Parkland, as we now know, had more than its share. Multiple police visits to the suspect’s residence – 23, I believe, by last count. His mother’s calls to police with her concerns. Getting kicked out of school. A video clip by the suspect in which he says, “I want to go and shoot people in school” – and, of course, the calls to the FBI.
Those are just the warning signs we know about through public channels. As the United States copes with another story about indicators missed before a tragic school shooting, we once again witness a “blame game” within law enforcement and society about gun control and mental health.
The need for a national dialogue about mental health and gun control is critical, without question. But since the infamous 1999 Columbine school shooting, what has been missing is a preventive process known as behavioral threat assessment.
1. More Schools Should Have Threat Assessment Teams
Threat assessment teams, in fact, have been established across the country within many school systems, including in Broward County, Florida. This system, with its emphasis on behavioral indicators in addition to direct threatening statements, may be key to school security and preventing these tragedies.
Threat assessment is the process of gathering and assessing information about persons who may have the interest, motive, intention and capability of mounting attacks in our schools. This process is understandably promising for communities recovering from an attack or concerned about a potential one.
For example, in response to the Parkland shooting – much like what we observed in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University school shootings – Florida governor Rick Scott has proposed legislation that would require “each school … to have a threat assessment team including a teacher, a local law enforcement officer, a human resource officer, a Department of Children and Families (DCF) employee, a Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) employee, and the principal to meet monthly to review any potential threats to students and staff at the school.”
I applaud this legislative initiative. It has been our experience that threat assessment teams are the best mechanisms in all settings – academic, government, nonprofit and commercial – to prevent targeted violence.
2. When Trained and Informed, Threat Assessment Teams Save Lives
I am very familiar with the origins of threat assessment in schools in my previous role of Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center. These origins can be traced to the Safe School Initiative study conducted jointly by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center and the U.S. Department of Education in 1999.
The principal findings of that study revealed that in most school shootings, information was available prior to the incident that suggested:
- The student was planning an attack at school;
- Their behavior concerned others;
- The weapons were purchased legally and accessed at the home;
- And of most significance, the shootings were not preceded by a direct threat.
One of the incidents included in the study, which exemplifies the predictive power of “warning signs” or unusual behavior, took place near Broward County in Lake Worth, Florida. On May 26, 2000, the last day of the 1999-2000 school year, Nathaniel Brazill — a well-regarded seventh-grade student — shot and killed a teacher at Lake Worth Middle School. He was convicted of second degree murder and aggravated assault.
Earlier in the week, police say, Brazill was suspended and had bragged to friends about having a gun and creating a “hit list.” They all dismissed it as one of his jokes. This example, with its parallels to other school shooting perpetrators, demonstrates the need for threat assessment teams to identify such behavioral warning signs.
3. Prevention is Much More about Behavior than Statements
It must be very frustrating for the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, which has produced excellent information on the active shooter phenomenon, that at least some within its ranks still apparently do not understand the basic principles of threat assessment.
- I watched FBI field supervisors at a recent press conference try to explain that the agency could not take action because the exact location, time and place was not mentioned in a reported YouTube video posted by the shooter, and therefore the concern was not further investigated.
- Just a few days later, the FBI also revealed that on January 5th, it received a tip from a concerned friend of the suspect that he had a “desire to kill,” access to guns and could be plotting an attack. Once again, agents were not notified and failed to investigate.
It appears that, after many years heroically responding to tragic events, many in the FBI and law enforcement agencies still do not understand that (1) most school shootings are not preceded by a direct threat and (2) that prevention involves an interdisciplinary threat assessment process where behavior, rather than statements, can be analyzed by the threat assessment team.
Ideally, once information emerges that an individual may have been exhibiting concerning behaviors — as did the shooter in Broward County — the team should immediately go into action.