Following a three-year partnership between the United States Department of Education (ED) and the United States Secret Service (USSS), a joint report summarizing their work reveals that incidents of targeted violence in schools are rarely impulsive—and that attacks are typically the end result of a process of thinking and behavior that often can be detected by others.

“The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States” examines the behavior and thinking of young persons who commit acts of targeted violence in the nation’s schools. The findings—and 12 related training sessions for educators and law enforcement—could help communities prevent school violence and allow them to identify and help children in need.

Among the most critical of the report’s findings: Before more than three-quarters of the incidents, others knew about the attacker’s plan. Most attackers also engaged in some behavior that caused others concern or indicated a need for help. In virtually all the cases where someone knew of the plan, the person with advance notice was a peer—a friend, schoolmate, or sibling. In only two cases did an adult know of the plan.

“While we now know that there is no accurate profile of the ‘school shooter,’ there are warning signs that could alert peers and adults to the plans of young attackers,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. “In almost every case in this study, attackers behaved in ways that caused others concern. Many had difficulty coping with a major relationship change or a loss of status among their peers. Many threatened or tried to commit suicide. And many felt desperate and let others know that. This underscores the absolutely critical need to establish relationships and connections with young people and to listen to them and their peers.”

Bullying appeared to play a major role in motivating some attacks. In more than two-thirds of cases, the attackers said they felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident.

Following the Columbine High School attack in April 1999, USSS and ED began the Safe School Initiative, a study of thinking, planning and other pre-attack behaviors engaged in by attackers who carried out school shootings. Implemented through USSS’s National Threat Assessment Center and ED’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, the study draws from USSS’s previous experience in studying the behavior of individuals who have carried out, or attempted, lethal attacks on public officials or public figures. The study identified 37 incidents involving 41 school attackers that had occurred since 1974.

The focus of the new report is on “targeted” school violence—school shootings where the school was deliberately selected as the location for the attack. The target may have been an individual, a category or group of students, or the school itself.

Key findings include:

• More than half of the attackers had revenge as a motive, and nearly three-quarters were known to hold a grievance prior to the attack.

• Most attackers had previously used guns and had access to them. Two-thirds got the guns used in attacks from their own home or that of a relative.

• Despite prompt law enforcement response, most shooting incidents were resolved before law enforcement authorities arrived on the scene. Other students or faculty stepped in, or the student stopped shooting or committed suicide.

• In nearly half the cases, the attacker was influenced or encouraged by others. In most cases, the attacker acted alone.

• There is no accurate or useful “profile” of those who engaged in school-based attacks. Student attackers come from various ethnic and racial backgrounds; a range of family situations; and have varying academic performance. Some were socially isolated, some popular; some had behavior problems, some had none that were evident; and few had any diagnosed mental disorder.

Within the next few weeks, a new guide to the final report will be disseminated to schools and law-enforcement agencies throughout the country. This publication, Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and Creating Safe School Climates, also will be used in 12 regional training sessions sponsored by ED and USSS. Paige is scheduled to participate in the Chicago training session taking place on June 5. Other sessions will be held in Seattle, Houston, Boston, Atlanta, and San Francisco. For more information about the training sessions, visit http://www.threatassessmentseminars.org.