Tag Archives: threats

Tearing Down Columbine?

In my last blog post published on the 20th of April 2019, I wrote about the legacy of Columbine twenty years on. The school shooting at Columbine High School in which thirteen victims were killed has been cited by numerous subsequent school shooters and aspiring attackers. The most recent example of this involved a female teenager said to have been infatuated with the shooting who travelled to Colorado from Florida, made some threats that were enough to shut down a number of schools and ending up killing herself. Another woman who was stopped in the parking lot of Columbine High School was said to have frequently posted about the Columbine shooters on Tumblr, describing them as ‘God-like.’ Those said to be obsessed with the massacre are described as ‘Columbiners.’ (1)

Littleton, the suburban neighbour where Columbine High School is located, is associated with the site of a high-profile tragedy. Although there has been remodelling of the school, the building more or less stands as it did in 1999. Unfortunately, this has meant it has become somewhat of a macabre attraction for visitors. Superintendent Jason Glass reported that the amount of individuals trying to enter the school building or trespassing in the campus area were the highest on record in 1999. Some of them are coming just to see where the tragedy took place, others coming to pay respect to the victims. (2) There are a minority, however, who may pose a threat. The challenging part is trying to distinguish which of the many threats — which spike exponentially following a new school shooting — are credible. The unprecedented growth in the amount of threats Columbine High faced ahead of the twenty year anniversary coupled with the constant stream of macabre visitors have provoked a debate about whether the school itself should be torn down and rebuilt. Following the Sandy Hook school shooting, the building was demolished and rebuilt. This massacre took place in 2012, however, when the United States had tragically became all-too-familiar with school shootings. In 1999, when Columbine occurred, it seems unlikely that anyone had actually envisaged the infamous status the Columbine shooters and the school itself would take on.

There are those who in favour of doing tearing down Columbine and starting afresh with a new building. The former principal who was in post at the time of the shooting, Frank DeAngelis, supports a new building facility writing in a Facebook post that “it is people that make us a family, not the building.” (3) Similarly, in the community blog about schools in Jefferson County, a letter was submitted by Superintendent Jason Glass in early June 2019 advocating rebuilding the school further away from the road. He advanced some ideas for the new school. These included keeping the name, school mascot and colours the same and preserving the Hope Library that was built in honour of the victims. (4) On the other hand, there are those who feel that this would not solve the problem — particularly if the name Columbine was still retained— or that the building represented a symbol of strength in the community. (5) This debate is likely to unfold over the coming months. Regardless of what Jefferson County School District decide to do about the building, it is likely that the term ‘Columbine’ itself will always be synonymous with a terrible and destructive act of violence.

 

[This blog post was put together using articles about the potential destruction of Columbine High School and previous knowledge about Columbine. The next blog post will look at Jamie’s Law, a bill for purchasing ammunition named in honour of a victim of the Parkland School Shooting.]

(1) Brianna Provenzano. (2019) ‘A “Morbid Fasicnation” with Columbine High School Might Lead to Its Shuttering.’ Pacific Standard, 10 June. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/news/a-morbid-fascination-with-columbine-high-school-might-lead-to-its-shuttering 
Jessica Contrera. (2019) ‘The Man Keeping Columbine Safe.’ Washington Post, 5 April. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2019/04/05/its-been-years-since-columbine-shooting-his-job-is-stop-next-attack/?utm_term=.e48d700ae442
(2) Brianna Provenzano. (2019) ‘A “Morbid Fasicnation” with Columbine High School Might Lead to Its Shuttering.’ Pacific Standard, 10 June. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/news/a-morbid-fascination-with-columbine-high-school-might-lead-to-its-shuttering
Jessica Contrera. (2019) ‘The Man Keeping Columbine Safe.’ Washington Post, 5 April. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2019/04/05/its-been-years-since-columbine-shooting-his-job-is-stop-next-attack/?utm_term=.e48d700ae442
(3) Julie Turkewitz and Jack Healy. (2019) ‘Columbine High School Could Be Torn Down to Deter copycats.’ The New York Times, June 7. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/07/us/columbine-high-school-demolition.html
(4) Jason Glass. (2019) ‘A New Columbine?’ Advance Jeffco, June 6. Retrieved from https://advancejeffco.blog/2019/06/06/a-new-columbine/
(5) Julie Turkewitz and Jack Healy. (2019) ‘Columbine High School Could Be Torn Down to Deter copycats.’ The New York Times, June 7. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/07/us/columbine-high-school-demolition.html

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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.]

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.

The Copycat Effect: Is the Media to Blame?

‘Copycatting’ is the act of replicating something which was previously successful. In relation to school shootings, this would involve attempting to pull off a similar attack to a highly-publicised one. More problematically, the incidents with the higher death tolls tend to get more attention. This could be said to set a ‘bar’ by which future school shootings are measured, with copycatters aiming to go a step further with their attack. What will be debated in this blog post is whether the news media can be held accountable, given its saturated coverage can make an event infamous in the first place.

 

The former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, once said that “Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism.” As an event intended to generate infamy and publicity, this statement could also be applied to school shooting attacks. It could be argued that if these attacks were not covered in the news media, there would be no ‘script’ for future perpetrators to follow. The prominence given to the story is also pertinent, with school shootings generally gaining ‘front page’ status and saturated broadcast coverage. In the case of the Columbine school shooting, the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper declined to put the story on the front page in case it encouraged others. Likewise, the National Enquirer showed a colour photograph of the two shooters lying in a pool of blood in order to ‘de-glamourise’ their actions. Probably the most notable example of this link is the Virginia Tech school shooting, where the perpetrator sent a copy of his manifesto to broadcast news station NBC prior to the attack. This then led to the dilemma of whether to show this footage; in the end, NBC decided to broadcast it, arguing it was in the public’s interest to see it.

 

It is notable that threats for further school shooting attacks occur shortly after an incident and sometimes on the anniversaries of when they took place. Following the shooting at Columbine High School, bomb threats made at schools peaked over 5000. There were also numerous examples of individual incidents across the country. A 17 year old boy wore a trench coat and walked round his school pretending he had a gun in Houma, Louisiana. In Oxon Hill High School, Virginia, a 15 year old boy threatened to blow up the school if he continued to receive poor grades in algebra. These are just a couple of examples of the types of copycat hoaxes that transpired.

 

Overall, it is debatable to what extent the news media can be held responsible. On the one hand, if the media failed to report the story and to attach a degree of significance to it, they would fail in their duty as ‘public watchdogs.’ There is a danger, however, in portraying school shootings — particularly those with high death tolls — as a way to gain infamy. The advent of social media has made this particularly dangerous, with there being even greater potential for news of school shootings to spread widely and quickly. As an explanation for school shootings on its own, the news media and copycat correlation seems particularly rudimentary. A better way to look at it is that the media provides a platform for school shooters and threateners to promote a particular presentation of themselves, the extent of which is dependent on the amount of coverage generated. More will be said on the way school shooters ‘use’ the media in blog posts later in the year.

 

[This blog post was put together using readings about the Columbine and Virginia Tech school shootings. The next post will look at copycat threats in more detail and what action can be taken against them.]

“Gun-free zones are killing zones”: Anxiety about School Shootings and the ‘Concealed Carry on Campus’ Movement

At the crux of the ‘concealed carry on campus’ debate, discussed in the last two blog posts, is the notion of the ‘gun free zone’: a public place where guns cannot currently be carried by citizens. It tends to be the case that following a mass shooting incident, some argue that the shooter(s) chose this location because of the lack of ‘armed resistance’; conversely, others maintain that forbidding gun in certain public places is a safety measure. This post will further explore the first line of argument as it pertains to the feelings of fear and anxiety around school shootings.

As it transpired, in the sample of YouTube comments I assessed, there were thirty comments encompassing the notion that criminals purposely target gun free zones: “Shooters attack schools because they are an easy target”; “‘Gun free zones’ are an invitation for criminals.” Additionally, some YouTube users drew upon knowledge of previous school shooting events and argued that the lack of armed resistance encouraged the shooters to perpetrate their attack there. A similar argument was made by the executive director of Gun Owners of America, Larry Pratt, in a news release following the shooting at Virginia Tech University:

Pertinent here is GOA’s framing with the terms ‘deadly’ and ‘dangerous,’ presenting the gun ban as being responsible for harm caused in shootings taking place in educational establishments — this is a one-sided assessment, for it fails to take into account the potential violence that gun bans in education institutions do prevent. The interest group in favour of allowing firearms on campuses, Students for Concealed Carry, made a similar argument: “‘Gun free zones’ serve to disarm only those law-abiding citizens who might otherwise be able to protect themselves.”(2) It, therefore, appears that the notion of a ‘gun-free zone’ has been socially constructed to infer a site where people are particularly vulnerable to attack.

‘Gun free zones’ being commonly described as ‘soft’ and ‘easy targets,’ henceforth, paved the way for the notion that people will be ‘defenceless’ in ‘gun-free zones,’ with YouTube users making statements like: “The fact that we aren’t allowed to carry here forces us to be a victim”; “Gun free zones equals killing zones.” These YouTube commentators are, henceforth, equating potential victimhood with being in a ‘gun-free zone.’ The implications of this fear are covered in comments from users surmising they would be helpless in a school shooting scenario:

“How is hiding behind my desk listening to my classmates scream and hoping that the police, who are minutes away, will arrive in time to save me the best way to defend myself?”

Such statements evoke the actor’s own subjective interpretation of the physical environment and risk of victimisation affect their fear of that particular crime. (3) The main conclusion to draw from this frame is a general feeling of helplessness that there is no way to negate the threat. Key here is the anticipation of threats: even though they are horrific when they occur, school shootings are actually quite rare within the wider spectrum of gun violence; it, hence, appears that people are overestimating the risks. Moreover, this ‘probability neglect’ can thereafter lead to ‘affect rich’ reactions where people take unnecessary precautions for the level of threat posed. In the case of school shootings, key to the feelings of susceptibility to attack is the notion of not being able to control the crime should it transpire. (4) Taking all this into consideration, it is not insurmountable to see how this would then translate into concealed carry on campus as the ‘solution’ to the problem — the next blog post will explore why individuals do not trust law enforcement to protect them.

[This blog post was put together using analyses of YouTube comments from a selection of 32 videos relating to the Virginia Tech school shooting and the concealed carry on campus movement. Also examined were the press releases and statements from Gun Owners of America and Students for Concealed Carry respectively. Literature relating to fear of crime was utilised to assess the findings. Future blog posts will continue this area of discussion.]

  • (1) Gun Owners of America (GOA) (April 2007) ‘Virginia Tech Shooting — Gun Bans Are The Problem, Not The Solution.’ Available at: http://www.gunowners.org/pr0704.htm
  • (2) Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. (n.d.) ‘About: Who We Are.’ Available at: http://concealedcampus.org/about/
  • (3) Ferraro, K. F. (1995) Fear of Crime: Interpreting Victimization Risk. New York: University of New York, 9.
  • (4) Information taken from reading the following sources: Sacco, V. F.and W. Glockman. ‘Vulnerability, Locus of Control and Worry about Crime.’ Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 6(1) (1987): 99-111; Sunstein, C. R. (2005) Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Warr, M. (2000) ‘Fear of Crime in the United States: Avenues for Research and Policy.’ Measurement and Analysis of Crime and Justice.

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.]