Students who came to school with a plan to kill did not “just snap.” They told other kids, aired their grievances, and otherwise left clues that could have been used to prevent the attacks, a Secret Service review of school shootings since 1974 finds.

In a departure from duties that include protecting the president and catching counterfeiters, the Secret Service examined 37 cases in hopes of teaching educators to take a closer look at what students are saying, rather than what they wear or who their friends are.

“This is not about personality,” said Randy Borum, a forensic psychologist and mental health law expert who worked as a consultant for the Secret Service on the schools study and its earlier looks at assassins. “This is about behavior. This is about asking whether this kid is on a pathway to a violent act, and if so, where is he on that path and how quickly is he moving.”

The agency’s preliminary report, released in October, was the second time this fall that a federal law enforcement agency has weighed in on the issue of school safety. A guide the FBI issued in September on sizing up student threats drew mixed reviews from educators worried that an accompanying list of character traits would make targets of troubled children.

Concern over school violence remains high even though school killings dropped to 13 last year, from a peak of 52 eight years ago.

Education Department officials, who accepted an offer of help from the Secret Service (a Treasury Department agency) a year ago and sat in on agents’ investigations, said the newest study offers a dose of reality for schools fighting violence.

“Young people who need help do not keep it a secret,” Education Secretary Richard Riley said. “But adults … are often the last ones to know.”

Riley’s school safety chief, William Modzeleski, said the report proves schools will have to be more vigilant about following up on student threats. “This is a clear message that we have to change the climate and culture of schools. It’s going to be important that students don’t see speaking up as squealing,” he said.

The review, which included interviews with 10 of the shooters, found that in most targeted attacks at school, the signals are loud and clear—at least among fellow students.

In one case, a student told 24 classmates and friends of his interest in killing other kids and making bombs. In another case, rumors of a planned shooting drew two dozen onlookers to a school hallway before the attacker opened fire; one student even brought a video camera, but forgot to record the event in all the excitement.

“I told everyone what I was going to do,” said Evan Ramsey, 16, who killed his principal and a student in remote Bethel, Alaska, in 1997. He told so many students about his hit list that his friends crowded the library balcony to watch. “You’re not supposed to be up here,” one girl reportedly told another. “You’re on the list.”

Profiling misses the mark

If there is one piece of advice that can be culled from the Secret Service study, it is this: Listen to children, improve school climates, and investigate thoroughly whenever a child raises concern.

The authors of the study warn of over-reliance on “quick fixes,” such as metal detectors, SWAT teams, profiles, warning signs, checklists, zero-tolerance policies, and surveillance cameras.

Why rely on SWAT teams, they ask, when most attacks are over before police arrive? Why focus on which kids fit a profile or show warning signs, when there is no profile that fits all kids who kill? Why expel students immediately for minor infractions, when expulsion was often the spark that pushed students to return to school with a gun?

Profiles are not specific enough, the study’s authors warn, because they fail to discern which students actually pose a threat. Many of the school shooters studied by the Secret Service would not have been identified by such a profile. Also, profiling can unfairly label or stigmatize students who stand out because they dress differently or exhibit other typical “teen” behavior.

The shooters studied by the Secret Service make up a diverse lot. They are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native Alaskan. They attended public schools and Christian schools. Few had a mental illness, although many were desperate and depressed.

They only characteristic they do share: they are all boys.

Tips for educators

“Because information about these attackers’ intent and planning was potentially knowable before the incident, some attacks may be preventable,” the report says. “However, because the time span between the attacker’s decision to mount an attack and the actual event may be short, quick responses are necessary.”

Based on their study of school shooters, Secret Service researchers offer these suggestions for school administrators:

• Understand that violence is the end result of a process that is often discernable. Students don’t just snap.

• There are no accurate or useful profiles of school shooters. Focus on thinking and behavior, not traits.

• Targeted violence stems from an interaction among attacker, situation, setting, and target. Pay attention to the role of bystanders, people who know what is going to happen.

• Use an investigative mind-set. Rely on the facts of this specific case. Corroborate key information. Investigate communications. Talk to the circle of friends. Investigate weapon-seeking.

• Each case is different. Each requires an individual, fact-based approach.

• Reduce barriers to students telling what they know.

• Because many students brought in guns from home, consider issues of safe gun storage.

• Don’t look only for threats. Many students who posed a threat did not threaten.

• Improve the handling of grievances.

“Bullying was not a factor in every case, and clearly not every child who is bullied in school will pose a risk for targeted violence in school. However, in a number of cases, attackers described experiences of being bullied in terms that approached torment,” the report says.

“They told of behaviors that, if they occurred in the workplace, would meet the legal definitions of harassment. That bullying played a major role in a number of these school shootings supports ongoing efforts to combat bullying in American schools.” n

Links:

Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, 950 H Street NW #8400, Washington, DC 20001; phone (202) 406-5470, eMail ntac@usss. treas.gov, web http://www.treas.gov/usss/ntac.htm.

Safe School Initiative: An Interim Report on the Prevention of Targeted Violence in Schools: http://www.treas.gov/usss/ntac_ssi_report