Tag Archives: threat assessment

Thwarted attacks: the phenomenon of near-misses

This blog post will examine the phenomenon of thwarted school shooting attacks, bringing a conclusion to the theme of copycat attacks. As mentioned in the blog posted on the 26th May 2016, there tends to be a spike in threats following a high-profile school shooting. Sometimes these threats are fabrications intended to attract attention; other times, they are real and concrete, requiring intervention to prevent them becoming deadly attacks. The difficulty of trying to conduct research into thwarted school shootings is it will involve studying attacks that did not actually transpire. Probably the most effective approach is to only study incidents where there is some degree of proof that the incident would have taken place. (1) This post will look at some of the instances where copycat threats became thwarted school shootings.

 

Following the Columbine school shooting, there was a spike in copycat threats across the United States. Those which could actually be considered ‘thwarted,’ however, are the ones with some degree of planning involved. An example of this occurred less than a month after the Columbine school shooting, where a 15 year old boy at Kennedy High School was alleged to have plotted an incident: the plan was to handcuff a target list of people to desks and shoot off their hands or shoot them in the head and then go into the hallway and shoot other students. This planned massacre was thwarted because the boy told two students (which a third one overheard) at the school, threatening to kill them if they reported it; the three students thereafter came forward with the information. The preparation of the target list and the boy’s access to a rifle in his home showed that the likelihood of this attack taking place was higher than other copycat threats. Around this time, a copycat Columbine-style massacre plotted by four current and former students at Adams City High School was also impeded. The seriousness of the purported threat was documented in a written plan, drawings and a map of the school given to the authorities by an unnamed informant.

 

What can be taken from these examples is that following a high-profile school shooting like Columbine, staff members, law enforcement officers and students at the school have heightened awareness about the possibility of copycat attacks. This is positive in the sense that they are perhaps more likely to come forward with information pertaining to threats, no matter whether these are hoaxes or serious copycat attacks. Such a sense of attentiveness to threats will not be permanent, however, with it likely to fade when the high-profile school shooting begins to receive less media coverage and public and political attention. This highlights the need for permanent vigilance when hearing about potential school shooting threats, particularly those with detailed plans and other concrete actions (such as procuring a firearm).

  1. Daniels, J. A., A. Volungis, E. Pshenishny, P. Gandhi, A. Winkler, D. P. Cramer et al., (2010). ‘A qualitative investigation of averted school shooting rampages.’ The Counseling Psychologist 38 (1), 69–95; Daniels, J. A. and J. W. Page. (2013) ‘Averted School Shootings.’ In N. Bockler et al. (eds.) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. Springer Science-Business Media: New York, 421-439.

 

[This blog post was put together using school shooting literature and media reports about copycat threats. It concludes the thread on copycat attacks for the moment.]

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Copycat Threats: Real or Fake?

As documented in the last blog post, the highly publicised nature of school shootings means that they are prone to creating ‘copycats.’ The amount of threats made tends to increase exponentially following a previous attack. Copycatters may try to ‘out-do’ the previous school shooting with the intention of gaining more media attention. (1) The purpose of this blog post is to explore the distinction between the threats that are empty in nature, with the sole intention of gaining attention or causing trouble; compared to those that do actually pose serious danger.

In the book The Copycat Effect, the author attributes copycatting to “thoughtless, sensational media,” claiming coverage of high-profile incidents like school shootings triggers a series of copycat attacks. Further to this, it is argued that the news media insidiously deflects any culpability for this, by instead discussing other ‘blame factors,’ such as violent video games or school culture. (2) The last blog post debated the extent to which the news media are to blame and questioned how credible this explanation really was when taken in isolation.

An important point to remember about the ‘copycat’ explanation is that the recognition to be ‘gained’ from media attention is not a sufficient enough reason for someone to carry out a school shooting. Notably, it is likely that carrying out an attack following a previous high-profile school shooting would keep the issue salient in the news for a while longer; yet, it would not guarantee particular notoriety for that particular incident. In fact, it would likely mean a discussion about school shootings in general or comparing and contrasting the two incidents that had occurred within a short period of time. Extrapolating from this means there must be additional motivating factors for copycatters whose massacres actually transpire; herein lies the basis for testing the credibility of threats made.

Every threat should be examined — even when claimed to be said in ‘humour’ or a moment of anger — because school shootings and other attacks do occur. When a copycat threat is made following a high profile incident, the threat itself, the context in which it was made and the threatener must all be critically assessed. Examining the content within the threat and its context gives some indication of its risk level: Does the threat give specific details, such as a location, methods (e.g. bombing or shooting), date and time? To who was the threat made and is this someone the threatener is likely to confide in? Was the threat said in a moment of emotional distress? Was the threat made repeatedly? Coupling this with information about the person(s) making the threat should provide a fuller picture: Does the threatener have the ability to carry out the threat? Is the threatener suffering from any personal problems and/or mental health issues that have been altering their recent behaviour? Do they have a motive and desire to follow through with the threat? Have those closest to the threatener noticed any changes in behaviour and/or similar threats being made? Is there any evidence of plans being plan to carry out the attack (e.g. purchasing firearms)?

Taking all that into consideration should go some way to fundamentally distinguishing between genuine and fake threats. A disingenuous copycat threat is likely to be said for a variety of reasons: gaining attention, attempting to be ‘humorous’ or controversial or perhaps intimidation of the school and people within it. A copycat threat where the threatener intends to follow through could be seen as a pre-warning to an attack.

[This blog was put together using relevant literature and threat assessment knowledge. The next post will continue this theme by looking at a recent case involving female copycatters.]

(1) Newman, K. S., Fox, C., Harding, D. J., Mehta, J. and Roth, W. (2004) Rampage: the social roots of school shootings. Basic Books: New York, 154, 250.
(2) Coleman, L. (2004) The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines. London, New York: Paraview Pocket Books.

A Threat Assessment Model: Offline Behaviour

The blogs published on the 4th, 8th and 11th June documented the personality characteristics of past school shooters: fragile male identities, a specific form of overt narcissism and fitting the state of ‘egoism’ conceptualised by the sociologist Emile Durkheim. Previous school shooters have shared the following characteristics: feeling a sense of injustice at the world and seemingly blamed everyone else for this; persuaded to carry out their attacks, either by specific persons, groups or predicated on the feeling that they had suffered throughout their lives; blame was bestowed upon everyone else bar the perpetrator for all their problems, tying in with the sense of injustice and persecution they feel; a lack of romantic success exacerbating matters, sometimes leading to stalking and harassment of females; excessive individualism, where the perpetrators felt they were ostracised by others and a lack of connection to society. It seems that the homicide-suicide of school shootings could encourage those with fragile, narcissistic identities in a state of excessive individualism to go through with the violent fantasies in their minds. Moreover, they know that once they have gone through with the murders, the time will come where law enforcement either shoots them dead or arrests them; therefore, they go into the rampages with the clear intention of killing themselves at the end.

With this in mind, a threat assessment model can be developed to be applied to both offline, everyday behaviours. Applying overt narcissism traits — not covert narcissistic characteristics, given they tend to revolve around a general sense of hopelessness and despair, not any active plans to sustain a high sense of self-esteem and demonstrate superiority — to warning signs could be indicative of a potential case for threat assessment: over-reaction (commonly aggressive or passive-aggressive) to the slightest criticism, high self-esteem that needs constant validation; the desire to be infamous and extreme fantasies of success and power, delusions of grandeur; a feeling of superiority combined with a sense of worthlessness; a sense of isolation from others in a particular environment and/or society in general. Taking all this into consideration, it is advised that threat assessments take into account the factors the narcissism and egoism factors outlined above when investigating a potential threat. It is of key importance hereto avoid ‘profiling,’ given this can lead to ‘false positives’ (people who fit the profile but have no intention of carrying out a school shooting) and ‘false negatives’ (where there is no evidence of the traits, but someone has the intention to perpetrate an attack). It is when the traits outlined above are combined with more disconcerting aspects, like fantasising about having power over others, expressing the desire to harm people in the school and intensive shooting practice, that red flags should be raised. The next blog will explore how this model can be coupled with online threats to create a hopefully more robust and thorough model of interrogating potential threats for their harm potential.

[Interested readers are directed to the blogs published on the 4th, 8th and 11th June for further information. A more detailed version of this model will appear in a chapter co-written with Dr. O’Grady to appear in the edited volume Gun Violence in American Society.]

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.]

School Shooter Admirers: Why Intervention is Required

In the last blog, I spoke about those who created a ‘revenge and bullying thesis to justify the actions of school shooters. Analysing such comments certainly suggests that for some users, school shooters have been romanticised as ‘heroes’ for bullied kids who dislike school. In this post, I want to further explore the sentiments expressed on YouTube comments by those expressing some kind of ‘fan admiration’ for the Red Lake and Virginia Tech school shooters.

Throughout the video comments, the terms used to describe the Virginia Tech shooter are ‘God,’ ‘true legend,’ ‘courageous warrior,’ ‘martyr’ and ‘hero’; whilst others said “my respect to him” and “he will be remembered for his bravery.” Some users placed responsibility for Cho’s actions upon his ‘bullies,’ whilst he is exonerated from blame and praised for defending himself. Other subjects’ comments proceed to assign the blame for the creation of school shooters to a variety of sources, such as society, popular people, life, society, bullies, high school environments, school teachers, and school officials. This comment log also addresses [in their words] feelings of being stifled, rejection, isolation, pain, torment, suffering, abuse, neglect, damaged, and being the ‘odd one.’ Other YouTube commentators made the point that they empathise with Cho but that he should not have killed innocent people, just his bullies: this at least shows some awareness of the lack of connection between the perpetrator and those he killed/wounded.

Similarly, a handful of commentators commended the Red Lake perpetrator for being ‘smart’; although the reasons why they think this are not given. A number of other comments were more standard displays of admiration claiming the perpetrator ‘stood up for himself’ and calling him a ‘hero.’ These kinds of comments show that the Red Lake shooter is idolised by disenfranchised kids who feel the same way as him. Users seemed to particularly feel sympathy for this perpetrator because of the tragedy in his life (his father killed himself and his mother was left brain-damaged after a car accident) and felt that he was too a ‘victim’: “he suffered great hardship and depression”; “he was obviously mentally ill and depressed.” Others revealed that they too had felt the same way. It seems the personal tragedies he suffered made users feel his suicidal tendencies were more understandable than other school shooters, especially if they themselves can empathise with him. The use of evaluative adverbs here ‘bullied,’ ‘depressed,’ and ‘suffered’ all convey value judgments) about the Red Lake perpetrator’s life. It seems that if a school shooter is relatable in some way, people are more likely to sympathise with him. This does not always necessarily lead to admiration; however, it shows a move towards a humanised interpretation of the school shooters, differing from traditional understandings of him as an ‘evil figure’ based on a Nietzschian understanding of ‘evil’ being inherent in the actions themselves.

More worryingly, to a handful of users carrying out a school shooting was the more ‘desirable’ option than just committing suicide, as this would not have garnered any attention. Comments claim that the infamy arising from some school shootings was the persuasive element for them: “violence is the way to get world attention”; “we all die but he’s [the school shooter] now a legend.” The sociologist Emile Durkheim (discussed in the blog published on the 8 June 2014) made some very interesting points on imitation and suicide that could be linked to the ‘copycat’ nature of school shootings. Imitation is defined as “the immediate antecedent of an act is the representation of a like act, previously performed by someone else,” which can occur between unconnected individuals. More importantly, “no imitation can exist without a model to imitate” and that is where the ‘cultural script’ of school shootings comes into play, prescribing a course of action which school shooters use to try and solve their problems. Paralleling this is Durkheim’s acknowledgement that pertinent to the act of imitation is seeing the initial act; without this, the act of suicide will be non-existent. In the case of school shootings, these tend to be highly publicised and the ones that are particularly shocking (Sandy Hook, December 2012) or with the highest death count (Virginia Tech, April 2007) are notorious in nature. For school shooters, the prospect of infamy through their act of homicide-suicide — more likely to come from particularly shocking and deadly attacks — is a driving force for them.

[This blog used a critical discourse analysis framework to assess YouTube comments. Future posts will incorporate the blogs published throughout June 2014 to formulate a threat assessment model.]

School Shootings as ‘Performances’: A Goffmanesque Understanding

“The majority of the audience won’t even understand my motives,” documented one of the Columbine perpetrators in his journal. Such a sentiment suggests that school shooters can view their attacks as a ‘performance.’ To explore this idea further, I wish to draw upon Erving Goffman’s theatrical metaphor about the ‘performing self’ and ‘front [visible] images.’ A key idea deriving from Goffman’s book is that “during a performance, the ‘performed self’ is seen as some kind of image.” Relating this to school shootings finds that prior to attacks, a number of perpetrators have carefully constructed materials, such as videos, photographs, writings and diaries, to display a certain ‘image’ and outline their ‘justifications’ for their forthcoming attacks. Drawing upon Erving Goffman’s theatrical metaphor, it could thus be said that they function as ‘stage props’ offering immediate displays of messages shown to audience members — in this case, the public — otherwise known as its “‘front’ [image].”

My blogs posted on the 4th and 11th June 2014 described how most school shooters tend to have narcissistic and fragile male identities. It could be said the shooters try to negate this and present themselves to others in a certain way using these constructed materials and thereafter try to maximise their potential audience by sending or intending to send their multi-media packages to news media outlets or uploading material to the internet. There are numerous examples of this occurring globally and it has just increased with the advancement of technology and growth of social media. Maps, notebooks, journals, blueprints of the school, websites, and videotapes were carefully constructed by the Columbine shooters with the intention of sending these to news media stations beforehand, although this never transpired. The Orange High School (2006) perpetrator mailed a collection of video tapes and a letter explaining his motives to local newspaper Chapel Hill News. The German school shooter of Emsdetten (2006) left a video and posted comments on the Internet. The Virginia Tech (2007) shooter sent a package consisting of twenty-seven video clips, an eight-hundred word document and forty-three captioned photos into the broadcast news station National Broadcasting Company (NBC). In Finland, both the Jokela (2007) and Kauhajoki (2009) school shooters left media packages and posted videos on YouTube. Similarly, the recent Isla Vista shooting spree (2014) of the surrounding campus area involved the attacker posting a video detailing his motives to YouTube and emailing a manifesto to people he knew, which has since been uploaded onto the internet.

This trend can be related to Goffman’s notion of presenting one’s self to gain acceptance from others and Lasch’s idea that the “narcissist depends on other’s validation.” It highlights the need for interventionary efforts before school shootings commence, with anyone aware of someone they know possibly putting together such materials bringing this to the attention of law enforcement and the educational institution they attend. School shooters do not tend to just ‘snap’; rather, attacks are usually planned well in advance, with these manifestos being part of the preparations. Incorporating these materials or the act of preparing such materials into threat assessment cements the idea that a threat is substantive and immediate action is needed to prevent the attack occurring. This requires co-operation from those closest to potential school shooters, however, and will require extra vigilance when someone is engaging in violent behaviour and/or making troubling threats.

Even after the school shooting has ended and the perpetrators are either dead or have been arrested, their ‘performance’ still continues through the viewing of YouTube videos, the promotion of their manifestos in the news media and discussions on social media. The continuation of the ‘performance’ via online discussions also emphasises the need for internet postings to be investigated. The online activities of the person in question could be interrogated for warning signs as part of threat assessment — this is something which will be developed further in a future blog.

[This blog was put together with Erving Goffman’s book and further reading about school shootings. Future blogs intend to build upon this one, by discussing the use of online comments in threat assessment.]

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.]