In our Threat and Violence Risk Management practice at Hillard Heintze, we adhere to several guiding principles regarding our assessments. One of these is the primary goal in gathering and assessing information about individuals who may have the interest, motive, intention and capability of targeted violence toward our clients. The solution is not necessarily facilitating a charge, arrest and conviction, but instead is to develop and implement a plan to monitor the individual and to intervene, if necessary and appropriate.

When we develop this plan, we pay a great deal of attention to the individual’s social systems, including family, work, social media, community, criminal justice, mental health and social services. Although arrests and convictions may occur during this process, the system approach to assessing and managing individuals who may pose a threat of targeted violence has proven to be the most successful intervention strategy.[1]

Case in Point: A Community Tries to Prevent a Tragedy

This system was tested in Fair Haven, Vermont, a small town whose residents believed felony charges against a reportedly violent teenager were going to save them from their own mass shooting. The New York Times described their relief in a recent article when 18-year-old Jack Sawyer, a former student at Fair Haven Union High School, was “charged with aggravated assault, two counts of attempted aggravated murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder … and held without bail.” [2]

The arrest was made following a string of reports to police, augmented by disturbing evidence to support Sawyer’s intent to murder his classmates. A mother told the police Sawyer returned to Fair Haven and purchased a gun. A friend of Sawyer also contacted the police, saying Sawyer described the events in Parkland as “fantastic,” and placed the following post on Facebook Messenger: “Just a few days ago, I was still plotting on shooting up my old high school.”

A messaging app was not the only place Sawyer detailed his plans. In addition to finding a shotgun and ammunition in his car, the police uncovered a journal which included statements like, “I’m aiming to kill as many as I can.” The journal’s contents were later made public, increasing Fair Haven’s fear over Sawyer’s inclination toward violence.

But according to the Vermont Supreme Court, these instances — while disturbing — did not equate to the three felonies Sawyer received. They noted the acts “did not meet the legal standards” of the most serious charges against him. The charges were subsequently dropped, with prosecutors replacing them with several misdemeanors such as criminal threatening. While the charges could still result in three years of imprisonment, Sawyer is currently out on a $10,000 bail.

When Law Enforcement Isn’t Enough

Sawyer’s release, which has left Fair Haven residents reeling with frustration and justifiable concern for their students’ safety, raises increasingly imperative questions regarding how to prevent mass shootings — especially when the law appears ineffective at doing so.

Three Vermont Supreme Court justices wrote in Sawyer’s case that an attempt at murder requires not only an intent, but very specific action toward completing the crime. According to the New York Times, “They looked to a 1906 case, in which the Supreme Court found that a prisoner who had obtained 12 hacksaws — but not yet used them to try to saw through the bars of his jail window — could not be convicted of attempting to escape.”

Though some have questioned the state of Vermont’s leniency in this legal area, the two-tiered approach to “attempt” doesn’t immediately seem illogical. Eliminating that second step could have far-reaching and detrimental effects in far less contentious situations. But Fair Haven, and Americans around the country, don’t want to find themselves lost in lawyer jargon when “seeing something” and “saying something.” They want the tools to protect their communities from mass violence, or at the very least, the ability to trust those in power to prevent it even without a conviction.

While law enforcement involvement is often positive, if not inevitable and necessary, threat assessment professionals like myself and our team here at Hillard Heintze often think back to the Safe School Initiative, a report by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education following Columbine. Its findings noted that many planned attacks could be prevented; a Threat Assessment Guide, created by the same bodies, also provided some key questions to consider when approaching the prevention process.[3]

11 Key Questions to Ask During a Threat Assessment

Evaluation of information gathered from research and interviews conducted during a threat assessment inquiry should be guided by the following 11 key questions:

  1. What are the student’s motive(s) and goals?
  2. Have there been any communications suggesting ideas or intent to attack?
  3. Has the subject shown inappropriate interest in weapons?
  4. Has the student engaged in attack-related behaviors?
  5. Does the student have the capacity to carry out an act of targeted violence?
  6. Is the student experiencing hopelessness, desperation and/or despair?
  7. Does the student have a trusting relationship with at least one responsible adult?
  8. Does the student see violence as an acceptable – or as desirable or as only way – to solve problems?
  9. Is the student’s conversation and “story” consistent with his or her actions?
  10. Are other people concerned about the student’s potential for violence?
  11. What circumstances might affect the likelihood of an attack?[4]

Many of the answers to these questions have justifiably caused concern in the Fair Haven community and required a law enforcement response, but do we really know what is causing the behavior? Is there now a plan in place to manage the case?

An Expert’s Advice on What to do Next

I don’t know all of the facts in the case, but if our firm hypothetically received a similar intake to our threat consultation services, I would have a few suggestions:

  1. Liaison with law enforcement. Threats accompanied by evidence of weapons possession must be thoroughly investigated. Threat assessment professionals in the private sector should never exclude law enforcement from information-sharing when public safety is at risk.
  2. Determine the motive behind statements reported by others. We know that motives for actual school attacks have included revenge for a perceived injury or grievance; yearning for attention; recognition or notoriety; a wish to solve a problem otherwise seen as unbearable; and a desire to die or be killed. Knowing a concerning student’s motives, and the circumstances behind these motives, can help a threat assessment expert identify risk. As the previous point suggests, this information can be often be shared with law enforcement personnel, who may be able to keep the individual from taking violent action.
  3. Immediately identify a responsible adult in the subject’s life to monitor, discuss the case with and provide support and assistance. It is an important nuance to emphasize to the responsible adult that their involvement is mutually beneficial: to protect our client AND their loved one from harm.
  4. Obtain a restraining order or protective order, thereby prohibiting the subject from violence by federal and most state laws, such as owning a firearm. The order could cover not only potential targets, but also the workplace which could include schools. An order could make removing firearms from a violence individual much easier for law enforcement; this law is often employed in domestic violence cases.
  5. Don’t rely on involuntary mental health treatments. Instead, attempt to obtain a court-ordered mental health treatment, thereby prohibiting the subject from possessing or having access to weapons. In this case in Vermont, a person who is prohibited from possessing firearms may petition the Family Division of the Superior Court for an order that the person be relieved from the firearms disability.[5]
  6. Finally, have a licensed clinical psychologist liaise with the mental health community. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, President Obama included a mandate within his 23 executive actions that sought to allow doctors to issue warnings when they believed a patient presented a serious and imminent threat. This was intended to work within the confines of HIPAA; doctors who disclose information are considered to be working in “good faith.”

When a thorough investigation suggests the subject has the interest, motive and ability to attempt an attack, our task is to manage the case so that violence does not occur. Successful case management involves considerable time and effort, not necessarily judicial action, and is composed of two functions: protecting the target (in this case, the school) and monitoring, controlling and redirecting the subject. If you have comments or questions on these challenges, please feel free to contact me at (202) 306-6530 or matthew.doherty@hillardheintze.com.

 

 


[1] Reddy, M., Borum, R., Berglund, J., Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., & Modzeleski, W. (2001). Evaluating risk for targeted violence in schools: Comparing risk assessment, threat assessment, and other approaches. Psychology in the Schools, 38, pp. 157-172. Available at http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac.htm.

[2] Bidgood, J. He Wrote Disturbing Plans for a School Shooting. But was that a Crime. New York Times. May 4, 2018.

[3] Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W. The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education: Washington, D. C. (May 2002), at 15. [hereinafter The Safe School Initiative Final Report].

[4] Threat Assessment In Schools: A Guide To Managing Threatening Situations and To Creating Safe School Climates. July 2004.

[5] Vt. Stat. Ann. Tit. 13, § 4825. A person who is prohibited from possessing firearms by 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) may petition the Family Division of the Superior Court for an order that the person be relieved from the firearms disability imposed by that section.