A recently released report by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) indicates that some student traits and behaviors can help identify potential incidents of targeted school violence before they occur. The NTAC studied 41 such incidents that occurred in U.S. K-12 schools between 2008 and 2017. Here are some of the key findings:
- Many Documented or Communicated Intentions Before Attacking
Seven attackers (17%) documented their plans and intentions for the attack in journal entries or other writings. Most of the attackers (83%) shared verbal, written, visual, or video communications that referenced their intent to carry out an attack, threatened the target, and/or threatened others.
The majority (89%) shared troublesome communications verbally through in-person statements. More than half (57%) sent concerning electronic messages to a specific person or persons, while 49% posted online to groups or the general public, and 34% conveyed alarming thoughts through school assignments (e.g., writing essays on violent topics).*
- About Half Had Received a Mental Health Diagnosis or Treatment
In 40% of the cases, the attacker had received a prior mental health diagnosis. Diagnosed mental health factors were divided into three main categories: psychological (69%), behavioral (57%), and neurological/ developmental (20%).† Of the 35 attackers for whom behavioral histories were available, 19 (54%) had received some type of mental health treatment.*
- All Attackers Had Experienced Stressors—and Most Were Recent
All of the attackers experienced stressors involving relationships, home or family conflict, academic or disciplinary actions, or other personal issues. Nearly all had experienced at least one stressor in the six months prior to their attack, and half within two days of the attack.*
- The Vast Majority Were Victims of Bullying
Most of the attackers had been bullied. In fact, 80% had been bullied by their classmates, and 57% had been bullied for weeks, months, or years.*
While this report does not identify a clear demographic, socioeconomic, or geographic profile of attackers, it’s apparent that certain experiences, behaviors, mental health factors, and home situations are common traits. Furthermore, attackers often communicate their state of mind or harmful intentions through verbal and digital manners.
It’s critical to implement systems and processes to leverage the clues potential attackers are providing so that school district and law enforcement officials can act and provide support before it’s too late. For further reading on this topic, this recent article from Education Week offers additional insight into the NTAC report.
* This data is based on 35 attackers, as there was little information available on the background of the attackers for six of the 41 incidents studied.
† These percentages account for diagnoses in multiple areas.