Tag Archives: Intel

Online ‘Leakage’: Interrogating Internet Activities as Part of Threat Assessment

The last two blog discussed school shooter admirers expressing their thoughts in the site YouTube. What is of key concern here is that users with similar mindsets sympathising with and admiring school shooters might ‘discover’ each other on social media and plan an attack together or perhaps encourage others to perpetrate a shooting — with this in mind, it certainly seems that online sites should be subject to more intense scrutiny and threat assessment.

The study conducted by Pollak et al. examining a series of school shooting incident for patterns found that in eighty-one percent of actual and planned incidents at least one person knew about the attacker’s plans beforehand. It was discovered that the most commonly cited reasons for bystanders not coming forward with threats were: not having a supportive school climate, lack of a positive adult influence, not taking the threat seriously, and having a close relationship with the threat-maker. In the case of YouTube comments, the ‘bystanders’ — other YouTube users and ‘guests’ who view the site but are not logged on — are in a much better position to report threats: they do not have a relationship with the threat-maker; even if some users do not take the threats seriously, others will; unlike a school environment, they do not need to worry about being scolded if it transpires that they ‘overreacted’ to the threat.
The counterargument could be made that users attracted to a particular kind of video (say, a school shooter fan video) would be more likely to encourage and desire a school shooting than report threats. This highlights the need for researchers in relevant fields (criminology, psychology, sociology) to prioritise further studies into this area and for online Intel to then feed its way through to threat assessment. A way to facilitate this process is for websites like YouTube to have links to the appropriate authorities for the countries its users are from; this would be more encouraging to bystanders, who may feel they do not know the most relevant organization to report threats to. Of course, the predicament here is that trying to find the ‘right’ authority that has jurisdiction over threats posted on the internet is problematic, as it draws resources away from other matters. The development of a threat assessment model could negate this to some extent, especially if partnerships could be fostered between the relevant bodies such as researchers, schools, local law enforcement.

One problem arising, however, is trying to conduct threat assessment on the basis of the threat alone does not reveal whether the threat-maker has the ability, motive and desire to actually carry out the threat which they speak. On sites like YouTube, no other information is generally known about users outside of the threat, bar that which they do reveal — it is questionable how much of this is true though — so this makes threat assessment using online Intel only a tougher process than piecing together someone’s history in a school environment. The context is which a threat is made is of key important here, as it reflects the threat-maker’s mental and emotional state at that specific moment in time; hence, a threat could be triggered by substances or a devastating event when the threat-maker actually has no intention of going through with it. Accordingly, this is even more of an issue with online threats, for some commentators, rather than actually planning an attack, will be internet trolls or even just bored children looking for attention or deliberately trying to start an argument.
A short-term solution to the threat requires the cooperation of the website in question to give some details about the user’s location so that schools in close proximity can be warned. Once the website has provided some information about the threat-maker, a long-term solution would need a partnership between researchers assessing online Intel and the local school board to see if there are any parallels between threats reported both by bystanders online and within schools. If users’ identities were narrowed down further, then that would require communication between researchers and individual schools to try and trace the individual — students at each school could be encouraged to report anything they see online to facilitate that process. This calls for the creation of a separate agency to monitor and investigate threats posted via the Internet, or for perhaps passing some legislation to deal with online threats (a number of states have included cyber-bullying in their bullying protocols, which is a good start.

[Threat assessment knowledge was used to put together this post. The next blog will document a threat assessment model using all the postings throughout June 2014.]

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Threat Assessment: When a Threat Becomes a Plan

In the last blog I spoke about the limitations of profiling for determining whether an individual is likely to carry out a school shooting. A more consistent approach is to utilise ‘threat assessment,’ first designed by the Secret Service to evaluate assassination threats made against political targets. Threat assessment is triggered only when an individual (the ‘threatener’) makes a threat or displays violent behaviour. It is a form of risk reduction and threat assessment determining whether the individual making threats is preparing for or planning an attack.

The Virginia Youth Violence Project developed a model to be used in schools and tested it throughout institutions in Virginia. A threat is defined by its guidelines as “an expression of intent to harm someone.” This is in direct contrast to profiling, which categorises a group of individuals meeting the ‘checklist,’ some of whom are ‘false positives’ that have no intention of perpetrating violence. Threat assessment puts the threat into context by examining the environment and social factors accompanying it. A majority of the time, there is no concrete plan attached to threats; for example, they may be said in a moment of anger or to demonstrate bravado in front of one’s peers. Theorists Calhoun and Weston, (2009) categorised two types of threats: ‘howlers’ and ‘hunters.’ The more common type is the ‘howlers,’ who make emotionally charged threats based on disputes. A number of ‘howlers’ experience final straw events, provoking the transition into ‘hunters’: the less common but dangerous type, preparing to carry out a violent attack based on perceived or real injustices.

The Safe2Tell hotline in Colorado is a mechanism to allowing individuals to anonymously report threats and warning signs; it also allows individuals to submit reports via text or the internet. The Intel obtained can be used to conduct threat assessment. An example was provided by the Safe2Tell founder and executive director, Susan Payne: two school students chatting during online gaming and one stating “If I’m not on tomorrow, I may well be dead. There will be a massacre at my school” and provided details of his plans. The other student sent this electronic dialogue to Safe2Tell and the I.P address of the threatener. Once the address had been traced, law enforcement intervened and found seven weapons in the student’s bedroom. In this example, the threat was substantive and immediate internventionary action was required to deal with it.

It was recommended that threat assessment should be conducted by a team consisting of the relevant professionals: a law enforcement official, like a school resource officer, who can contribute to the criminal and legal aspects of the threat and provide security if violence does transpire; a mental health professional to assess with the intervention and treatment of the individual; a school administrator or principal, who will can access the students’ records and look at the context and meaning of the threat. Dr. Nicoletti of Nicoletti-Flater Associates claimed others are also informally involved in the process: the faculty in the school are ‘disrupters,’ who take protective action; the students are the ‘detectors,’ who may have knowledge of students’ plans and behaviour; the teachers and sports coaches are both ‘disrupters’ and ‘detectors,’ who will also witness warning signs but have the responsibility of taking action on these.

The process of threat assessment generally goes through the following stages: identify threats and those making them; evaluate whether the threat is transient or substantive, as this determines what follow-up action is taken; if the threat is deemed substantive, intervention with mental health treatment, law enforcement response and expulsion; once the threat has been dealt with, monitor whether it has been resolved completely and evaluate whether the safety plan was effective. When the threat assessment team feels the individual who made the threat does not intend to carry it out, the case is closed unless any other threats or violent behaviour arises.

In order to be truly effective, threat assessment requires a multi-disciplinary team, Intel provided by those with forewarning of school shooting plans, and the contextualisation of threats. Future blogs will build upon the idea of threat assessment, developing a model with reference to specific examples.

[This blog was put together by referencing threat assessment literature and presentations given at the ‘School Safety Symposium’ in summer 2013.]