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Active Shooter Situations: Preventing an Active Shooter Situation

Warning Signs

No profile exists for an active shooter; however, research indicates there may be signs or indicators. Schools should learn the signs of a potentially volatile situation that may develop into an active shooter situation and proactively seek ways to prevent an incident with internal resources, or additional external assistance.

In 2002, the Safe School Initiative (SSI) was completed by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service, examining 41 K–12 student attackers involving 37 incidents in the United States from 1973 through May 2000.14 The research results, though focused on targeted school violence and not on active shooter situations, remain highly useful as a guide for law enforcement officials, educators, and mental health practitioners.

The study identified 10 key findings for the development of strategies to address targeted school violence:

  • There is no accurate or useful profile of students who have engaged in targeted school violence.
  • Incidents of targeted violence at school are rarely sudden, impulsive acts.
  • Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or the plan to attack.
  • Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
  • Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.
  • Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant loss or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.
  • Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.
  • Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
  • In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
  • Despite prompt law enforcement officer responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.15

By highlighting common pre-attack behaviors displayed by past offenders, federal researchers have sought to enhance the detection and prevention of tragic attacks of violence, including active shooting incidents. Several agencies within the federal government continue to explore incidents of targeted violence in the effort to identify these potential “warning signs.” In 2002, the FBI published a monograph on workplace violence, including problematic behaviors of concern that may telegraph violent ideations and plans.16 In 2007, the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Department of Education, and the FBI collaborated to produce the report Campus Attacks, Targeted Violence Affecting Institutions of Higher Learning, which examined lethal or attempted lethal attacks at U.S. universities and colleges from 1900 to 2008. The report was published in 2010, and featured several key observations related to pre-attack behaviors, including the following:

  • In only 13 percent of the cases did subjects make verbal and/or written threats to cause harm to the target. These threats were both veiled and direct, and were conveyed to the target or to a third party about the target.
  • In 19 percent of the cases, stalking or harassing behavior was reported prior to the attack. These behaviors occurred within the context of a current or former romantic relationship, or in academic and other non-romantic settings. They took on various forms, including written communications (conventional and electronic), telephonic contact, and harassment of the target and/or the target’s friends and/or family. Subjects also followed, visited, or damaged property belonging to target(s) or their families prior to the attack.
  • In only 10 percent of the cases did the subject engage in physically aggressive acts toward the targets. These behaviors took the form of physical assaults, menacing actions with weapons, or repeated physical violence to intimate partners.
  • Concerning behaviors were observed by friends, family, associates, professors, or law enforcement officers in 31 percent of the cases. These behaviors included, but were not limited to paranoid ideas, delusional statements, changes in personality or performance, disciplinary problems on campus, depressed mood, suicidal ideation, non-specific threats of violence, increased isolation, “odd” or “bizarre” behavior, and interest in or acquisition of weapons.

Specialized units in the federal government (such as the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit) continue to support behaviorally based operational assessments of persons of concern in a variety of settings (e.g., schools, workplaces, places of worship) who appear be on a trajectory toward a violent act. A review of current research, threat assessment literature, and active shooting incidents, combined with the extensive case experience of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, suggest that there are observable pre-attack behaviors which, if recognized, could lead to the disruption of a planned attack.17 While checklists of various warning signs are often of limited use in isolation, there are some behavioral indicators that should prompt further exploration and attention from law enforcement officers and/or school safety stakeholders. These behaviors often include

  • Development of a personal grievance;
  • Contextually inappropriate and recent acquisitions of multiple weapons;
  • Contextually inappropriate and recent escalation in target practice and weapons training;
  • Contextually inappropriate and recent interest in explosives;
  • ontextually inappropriate and intense interest or fascination with previous shootings or mass attacks; and
  • Experience of a significant real or perceived personal loss in the weeks and/or months leading up to the attack, such as a death, breakup, divorce or loss of a job.
  • Few offenders had previous arrests for violent crimes.

14 Robert Fein, Bryan Vossekuil, William Pollack, Randy Borum, William Modzeleski, and Marisa Reddy, Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Secret Service, 2004. Available athttp://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/threatassessmentguide.pdf.

15Bryan Vossekuil, Robert Fein, Marisa Reddy, Randy Borum, and William Modzeleski, The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Secret Service, 2004. Available at http://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf.

16U.S. Department of Justice FBI Academy, Workplace Violence: Issues in Response. Quantico, Va: Author, 2002. Available at http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/workplace-violence.

17 See Frederick Calhoun and Stephen Weston, Contemporary Threat Management: A Practical Guide for Identifying, Assessing, and Managing Individuals of Violent Intent (San Diego, CA: Specialized Training Services, 2003); Gene Deisinger, Marisa Randazzo, Daniel O’Neill, and Jenna Savage, The Handbook for Campus Threat Assessment and Management Teams (Stoneham, MA: Applied Risk Management, 2008); Robert Fein, Bryan Vossekuil, and Gwen Holden, Threat Assessment: An Approach to Prevent Targeted Violence (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, 1995); John Monahan, Henry Steadman, Eric Silver, Paul Appelbaum, Pamela Robbins, Edward Mulvey, Loren Roth, Thomas Grisso, and Steven Banks, Rethinking Risk Assessment: The MacArthur Study of Mental Disorder and Violence (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001); Bryan Vossekuil, Robert Fein, Marisa Reddy, Randy Borum, and William Modzeleski, The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Secret Service, 2004).