Long the guardian of America’s presidents and currency, the Secret Service is extending its expertise to a new domain: the nation’s schools. The agency believes that some of the methods that help thwart potential assassins might also prevent Columbine-style violence.
The Secret Service Safe School Initiative, a project on how to identify youngsters who might turn violent, is scheduled for release sometime this month. Agents from the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, including psychology experts, have examined about 40 recent school shootings and interviewed several of the perpetrators.
“Our schools are a fairly safe place to be, but the national psyche has changednobody still thinks ‘It can’t happen to me,'” Secret Service Director Brian Stafford said in an interview with the Associated Press.
“There are a lot of people looking for answers. We don’t have them all … but there’s no better organization to take the lead in this area. It’s what we do every day, and we’re the best in the world at it.”
The final report, which will be made available to police and school officials and will be published on the agency’s web site, will offer suggestions for early detection of potentially threatening students. What it won’t contain is any profile of a typical school shooter.
“We don’t believe in profiles,” Stafford said. “There are no psychological or demographic profiles for the adults who pose threats, and my guess is we’re going to find the same thing in children.”
Bryan Vossekuil, the agent heading the project, noted that other organizations and experts have compiled profiles or checklists intended to help identify potentially violent students.
“The dilemma is that some are written so broadly that they’re overinclusive, and some written so narrowly that they’re likely to miss people educators should be concerned about,” Vossekuil said. “There’s no one set of characteristics that describe a school shooter.”
For example, Vossekuil said some of the school shooters were victims of bullying, others were not. Some were poor students, others very bright.
On some matters, the Secret Service findings are ambiguous. For example, the attacks studied often were preceded by threatening comments, but not necessarily a specific, direct threat toward the eventual target. And though several shooters had psychological problems, “it’s not as if they were overtly crazy,” Vossekuil said.
One of the most useful findings, Stafford said, is that none of the shooters acted “in a spontaneous, impulsive manner.”
“There’s been plenty of time to intervene,” he said. “But you have to recognize the signs and have people in place to respond.”
The shooters did not necessarily convey any veiled warnings to adults, Stafford said, “but there was plenty of communication … diaries, web sites, quite a few other children aware of the information.”
Rather than profiling, the Secret Service focuses on behavior and motives, tracing the shooter’s thoughts and actions. It has used similar methodology in dealing with potential assassins, workplace violence, and celebrity stalkers.
“We’re asking how he came to the point where he saw this as some kind of solution,” Vossekuil said. “Is there potentially discernible behavior that might aid in earlier detection?”
One of the jailed youths interviewed by agents was Luke Woodham, convicted of killing two students and wounding seven at Pearl High School in Mississippi in 1997.
In the interview, Woodham said he had a difficult childhood and “felt like nobody cared.”
“I just didn’t have anyone to talk to about all the things I was going through,” he said. “I kept a lot of hurt inside me.”
As part of the project, Vossekuil and his colleagues have met in various regions with school and police officials. On hand at a seminar near Pittsburgh was Allegheny County police officer Mike Spagnoletti, who works on anti-drug and anti-violence programs in area schools.
He was impressed by the agents’ candor regarding profiling.
“There’s kid stuff and there’s serious stuff, and you’ve got to know the difference,” Spagnoletti said. “A kid dyes his hair purple and dresses in black, that may be strange to you or me, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to go out and kill somebody.”
A leading expert on children’s mental health, Kevin Dwyer, questioned whether the Secret Service could effectively shift its focus from adult crime to student behavior.
“If they all worked together to get rid of guns, we’d be better off,” said Dwyer, a former president of the National Association of School Psychologists.
However, Dwyer said he welcomes any effort that would bring education, health, and law enforcement officials together to prevent violence.
“We need to teach all kids to be more reflexive than impulsive, to cope better, to think before they act,” he said. n
National Threat Assessment Center, 950 H Street NW, Suite 8400, Washington, DC 20001; phone (202) 406-5708, web http://www.treas.gov/usss/ntac.