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Illustration by Security Management

Most School Attackers Showed Warning Signs, Report Finds

Most students who committed deadly school attacks over the past decade were bullied, had a history of disciplinary trouble, and concerned others with their behavior—but that behavior was never reported, according to a U.S. Secret Service study released yesterday.

The U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) report, Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence, looked at 41 school attacks—including knife and other weapon-based attacks, not just shootings—from 2008 through 2017. The analysis suggests that many of the attacks could have been prevented, particularly through comprehensive targeted violence prevention programs, which are intended to identify students of concern, assess the risk of violence they pose, and implement intervention strategies.

“Because most of these attacks ended very quickly, law enforcement rarely had the opportunity to intervene before serious harm was caused to students or staff,” the report states. “Additionally, many of the schools that experienced these tragedies had implemented physical security measures (e.g., cameras, school resource officers, lockdown procedures). Prevention is key.”

The study found that there is no profile of a student attacker—ages, genders, races, grade levels, academic performance, and social characteristics all varied. Attackers usually had multiple motives, most commonly involving a grievance with classmates, as well as grievances with staff, romantic relationships, fame-seeking behavior, or other personal issues.

All attackers studied experienced social stressors involving relationships with peers or romantic partners; nearly all experienced at least one social stressor in the six months prior to the attack—half within two days of the attack. Nearly every attacker experienced negative home life factors, such as parental divorce or separation, drug use or criminal charges among family members, or domestic abuse.

Most attackers were victims of bullying, which was often observed by others. For nearly three-quarters of the attackers, there was evidence they had experienced verbal bullying, including spoken threats, crude gestures, name calling, teasing, taunting, and suggestions that they kill themselves. Forty percent experienced physical bullying. In many cases, someone—a parent, a classmate, or a school official—was aware of the bullying. In 37 percent of cases, the attackers were bullies themselves, as well as victims of bullying.

“All school personnel should be trained to recognize signs of a student in crisis,” the study says.

Most attackers used firearms, most often acquired from the home, although some attackers used knives instead of firearms.

Most attackers had experienced psychological, behavioral, or developmental symptoms, the study found. However, the report added that “the fact that half of the attackers had received one or more mental health services prior to their attack indicates that mental health evaluations and treatments should be considered a component of a multidisciplinary threat assessment, but not a replacement.”

Half of the attackers showed interest in violent topics, and most attackers had a history of school disciplinary action. Many had prior contact with law enforcement.

All attackers exhibited concerning behaviors—most of them elicited concern from others, and most attackers communicated their intent to attack. However, few observers acted on those concerns, “either out of fear, not believing the attacker, misjudging the immediacy or location, or believing they had dissuaded the attacker,” the study says.

Only 17 percent of schools studied had any type of system in place to notify school staff or administrators of threatening or concerning student behavior prior to an attack. Only 22 percent of schools had a formal threat assessment or intervention protocol.

The Secret Service study strongly recommends developing a targeted violence prevention plan, and it offers an eight-step program for implementing one. A full guide is available on the Secret Service website, but an abbreviated version is below.

  1. Establish a multidisciplinary threat assessment team of school personnel—faculty, staff, administrators, coaches, and available school resource officers.
  2. Define concerning behaviors, including “objectively concerning” or “prohibited” behaviors (threats, violent acts, weapons on campus) that would trigger an immediate intervention, and “lower-level concerning” behaviors (depressed mood, interest in violent topics, conflicts between classmates).
  3. Establish and provide training on a central reporting system, like a smartphone app, online form, or dedicated school email address or phone number. Ensure it provides anonymity and is monitored by personnel who will follow up on all reports.
  4. Determine the threshold for law enforcement intervention.
  5. Establish threat assessment procedures, including practices for maintaining documentation, identifying sources of information, reviewing records, and conducting interviews.
  6. Develop risk management options to enact after assessment.
  7. Create and promote a safe school climate built on a culture of safety, respect, trust, and emotional support. Encourage communication, intervene in conflicts and bullying, and empower students to share concerns.
  8. Provide training for all stakeholders, including school personnel, students, parents, and law enforcement.