School-at­tacks study finds sim­i­lar threads

Most cul­prits bul­lied, raised red flags

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Front Page - COLLEEN LONG

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

In at least four cases, at­tack­ers wanted to em­u­late other school shoot­ings, in­clud­ing those at Columbine High School in Colorado, Vir­ginia Tech Univer­sity and Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School in Con­necti­cut. The re­search was started af­ter the shoot­ing at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Park­land, Fla.

The study by the Se­cret Ser­vice’s Na­tional Threat As­sess­ment Cen­ter is the most com­pre­hen­sive re­view of school at­tacks since the Columbine shoot­ings in 1999. The re­port looked in-depth at 41 school at­tacks from 2008-17, and re­searchers had un­prece­dented ac­cess to a trove of sen­si­tive data from law en­force­ment agen­cies, in­clud­ing po­lice re­ports, in

ves­tiga­tive files and non­pub­lic records.

The in­for­ma­tion gleaned through the re­search will help train school and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials on how to bet­ter iden­tify stu­dents who may be plan­ning at­tacks and how to stop them be­fore they strike.

“These are not sud­den, im­pul­sive acts where a stu­dent sud­denly gets dis­grun­tled,” Lina Alathari, the cen­ter’s head, said in an in­ter­view. “The ma­jor­ity of these in­ci­dents are pre­ventable.”

The fa­thers of three stu­dents killed in 2018 at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High at­tended a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day in sup­port of the study.

Tony Mon­talto, whose 14-year-old daugh­ter Gina Rose Mon­talto, died, said the re­search was in­valu­able and could have helped their school pre­vent the at­tack.

“My lovely daugh­ter might still be here to­day,” he said. “Our en­tire com­mu­nity would be whole in­stead of for­ever shaken.”

Mon­talto urged other schools to pay at­ten­tion to the re­search.

“Please, learn from our ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “It hap­pened to us, and it could hap­pen to your com­mu­nity, too.”

Nearly 40 train­ing ses­sions for groups of up to 2,000 peo­ple are sched­uled. Alathari and her team trained about 7,500 peo­ple dur­ing 2018. The train­ing is free.

The Se­cret Ser­vice is best known for its mis­sion to pro­tect the pres­i­dent. The threat as­sess­ment cen­ter was de­vel­oped to study how other kinds of at­tacks could be pre­vented. Of­fi­cials use that knowl­edge and ap­ply it in other sit­u­a­tions, such as school shoot­ings or mass at­tacks.

Since the Columbine at­tack, there have been scores of school shoot­ings. Some, like Sandy Hook in 2012, were com­mit­ted by non­stu­dents. There were oth­ers in which no one was in­jured. Those were not in­cluded in the study.

The re­port cov­ers 41 school at­tacks from 2008-17 at pub­lic schools. The cases were cho­sen if the at­tacker was a cur­rent or re­cent for­mer stu­dent within the past year who used a weapon to in­jure or kill at least one per­son at the school while tar­get­ing oth­ers.

“We fo­cus on the tar­get so that we can pre­vent it in the fu­ture,” Alathari said.

Nine­teen peo­ple were killed and 79 were in­jured in the at­tacks they stud­ied; vic­tims in­cluded stu­dents, school staff mem­bers and law en­force­ment of­fi­cers.

The Se­cret Ser­vice put out a best prac­tices guide in July 2018 based on some of the re­search to 40,000 schools na­tion­wide, but the new re­port is a com­pre­hen­sive look at the at­tacks.

The shoot­ings hap­pened quickly and were usu­ally over within a minute or less. Law en­force­ment of­fi­cers rarely ar­rived be­fore an at­tack was over. At­tacks gen­er­ally started dur­ing school hours and oc­curred in one lo­ca­tion, such as a cafe­te­ria, bath­room or class­room.

Most at­tack­ers were male; seven were female. Re­searchers said 63% of the at­tack­ers were white, 15% were black, 5% His­panic, 2% were Amer­i­can In­dian or Alaska Na­tive, 10% were of two or more races, and 5% were un­de­ter­mined.

The weapons used were mostly guns, but knives were used, as well. One at­tacker used a World War II-era bay­o­net. Most of the weapons were from the at­tack­ers’ homes, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­ported.

Alathari said in­ves­ti­ga­tors were able to ex­am­ine de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about at­tack­ers, in­clud­ing their home lives, sus­pen­sion records and past be­hav­iors.

There’s no clear pro­file of a school at­tacker, but some de­tails stand out: Many were ab­sent from school be­fore the at­tack, of­ten through a school sus­pen­sion; they were treated poorly by their peers in per­son, not just on­line; they felt mis­treated; some sought fame, while oth­ers were sui­ci­dal. They fix­ated on vi­o­lence and watched it on­line, played games fea­tur­ing it or read about it in books.

The key is know­ing what to look for, rec­og­niz­ing the pat­terns and in­ter­ven­ing early to try to stop some­one from pur­su­ing vi­o­lence.

“It re­ally is about a con­stel­la­tion of be­hav­iors and fac­tors,” Alathari said.

The at­tack­ers ranged in age but were mostly young adults, seventh-graders to se­niors. More than three-quar­ters ini­ti­ated their at­tacks af­ter an in­ci­dent with some­one at school.

In one case, a 14-year-old shot a class­mate at his mid­dle school af­ter he’d been mocked and called ho­mo­pho­bic names. The at­tacker later re­ported that the vic­tim made com­ments that made him un­com­fort­able, and they were the fi­nal straw in his de­ci­sion to at­tack. Seven at­tack­ers doc­u­mented their plans, and five re­searched their tar­gets be­fore the at­tacks.

Thirty-two were crim­i­nally charged, with 22 charged as adults. Most took plea deals. More than half are in­car­cer­ated. A dozen more were treated as youth­ful of­fend­ers. Seven killed them­selves, and two were fa­tally wounded.

Alathari said the re­port shows that schools may need to think dif­fer­ently about school dis­ci­pline and in­ter­ven­tion.

The re­port does not weigh in on po­lit­i­cal top­ics such as whether guns are too ac­ces­si­ble or whether teach­ers should be armed.

She said the goal is to make schools a safer place where no more at­tacks oc­cur.

“We fo­cus on the tar­get so that we can pre­vent it in the fu­ture.”

— Lina Alathari, head of the Se­cret Ser­vice’s Na­tional Threat As­sess­ment Cen­ter

AP/CLIFF OWEN

“These are not sud­den, im­pul­sive acts where a stu­dent sud­denly gets dis­grun­tled,” said Lina Alathari, head of the Se­cret Ser­vice’s Na­tional Threat As­sess­ment Cen­ter. “The ma­jor­ity of these in­ci­dents are pre­ventable.” More photos at arkansason­line.com/118bully/

AP/CLIFF OWEN

Par­ents of school shoot­ing vic­tims Peter Lang­man (from left), Su­san Payne, Max Schachter and Ryan Petty lis­ten Thurs­day in Wash­ing­ton as U.S. Se­cret Ser­vice of­fi­cials re­lease a study on ways to iden­tify and stop stu­dents who may be plan­ning an at­tack.

AP/CLIFF OWEN

Tony Mon­talto, whose daugh­ter Gina Rose Mon­talto was killed in the 2018 shoot­ing at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Park­land, Fla., wears a bracelet with his daugh­ter’s name on it. “Please, learn from our ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “It hap­pened to us, and it could hap­pen to your com­mu­nity, too.”

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