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Threat response: prevention, quick action

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series done in conjunction with KTVL Channel 10. See more tonight on KTVL's 6 p.m. broadcast.

Mass school shootings still are rare, but as the number of incidents and death tolls rise nationwide, local schools are ramping up efforts to catch dangerous behaviors early and respond to threats quickly.

“There seem to be some common traits behaviorally that are early warning signs and that’s certainly one of the big focuses for schools right now: How do we identify those behavioral threats first so that we can prevent these things from happening?” said Jordan Ely, Ashland School District’s chief operations officer, who is helping lead the district’s efforts to increase security.

FBI researcher Mary Ellen O’Toole’s book “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective,” published in 1999, helped establish a four-pronged assessment model for determining response to threats against schools: the personality of the student making the threat, his family circumstances, his school experience and social dynamics.

Those factors may shed light on not only what led to the threat, but whether that threat might escalate into action.

Understanding how a student displaying threatening behavior interacts with his peers can aid school officials in finding ways to help him. It can also give community members tools for spotting peers who may need help, too.

One example of a common profile among mass shooters is an “aggressive injustice collector.” Drawing on information about past shooters, O’Toole defined this personality in a 2014 paper as a tendency to inflate real or perceived personal affronts and accumulate them.

While not all injustice collectors turn to violence, O’Toole’s research concluded that in some cases, the victim’s mindset swells to violent, revenge-seeking behavior.

The men responsible for the shootings at Virginia Tech, University of California Santa Barbara and Umpqua Community College, for example, all mentioned vengeful motivations in their manifestos and video messages.

The National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also gathered data on consistent behaviors and factors among school shooters. Those include family dysfunction and social frustration, often expressed through social media.

“Monitoring of such media becomes an important tool in early identification of individuals at risk for committing violence,” wrote one behavioral science professor from Johns Hopkins University.

An internet safety expert presenting at a recent Oregon School Resource Officers Association conference stressed the same point, according to Medford School Resource Officer Ian McDonald.

“He said, the parents really need to take more of a hand in their kids’ technology — need to have more of a hand in what are they doing, how are they doing it?” McDonald said.

Vigilant restraint

Experts caution against using mass shooters’ common behaviors and backgrounds to try to predict violence in those who have not made threats.

“In practice, trying to draw up a catalogue or ‘checklist’ of warning signs to detect a potential school shooter can be shortsighted, even dangerous,” O’Toole wrote in “The School Shooter.” “In fact, a great many adolescents who will never commit violent acts will show some of the behaviors or personality traits included on the list.”

Theories about the underlying factors driving the two students who killed 13 people and wounded 24 others at Columbine High School in 1999 spread rampant in the aftermath. An interest in graphic or violent games and movies, metal music and wearing trench coats were all pointed to as “signs” that some students might be next to perpetrate violence.

But that degree of hypervigilance can have negative effects, as O’Toole’s book notes. An example of such an impact was highlighted in a report this summer by the Oregonian about a student at Parkrose High School in the Portland area labeled as possibly being “the next school shooter.”

The student, identified in the article by his middle name Sanders, never made explicit threats, but was interested in weapons and sometimes struggled to relate to peers due to being on the autism spectrum. Those factors, combined with the heavy black trench coat he prefers to wear, were among the reasons students were nervous around him.

Sanders began missing school after being investigated repeatedly. He enrolled in night school, but his father said the district had “effectively created a dropout” due to the program’s lack of rigor.

Following threats

School officials want to get involved from the time that students begin to feel unsafe, they said.

In Medford, the first step after a report is a “threat to others” risk screening, said Tania Tong, director of special education and student services.

“What we’re really looking for is, is the threat credible?” she said. “If we find it to be credible, we would go to a full ‘threat to others’ assessment, which is more in-depth.”

The screening and assessment both involve a group of people, which typically includes the student, his or her parents or guardians, district administrators and people who know the student. Sometimes the assessment includes a school resource officer. Figuring out whether the student has the means to carry out a specific threat is a top priority, Tong said.

The district will sometimes create an individualized safety plan after those assessments, which could involve having their school bag checked by staff upon arrival, for example.

Students often find out about unstable or potentially dangerous behavior the same way they keep tabs on each other: through social media.

District spokeswoman Natalie Hurd said the increased vigilance is likely why the district has reported higher numbers of students bringing weapons to school every one of the past three years. Medford reported one such incident in 2015-2016, seven in 2016-2017 and 11 in 2017-2018.

“With the rise of social media, it kind of leads us on trails that we might not have gone down in the past,” she said.

McDonald said that while quick response is key, administrators are also willing to hear students out to learn why they might be making their peers nervous with their behavior.

“Whether it’s you said you were gonna fight somebody or you said you were gonna kill somebody, or somebody’s seen making a finger motion” — he mimicked a gun with his hand — “anything like that raises suspicion, the deans will call the kid in and talk to them. And again, we’re not slamming you. I’m not looking to get you in trouble right off the bat. What’s going on with you?”

Besides, talking about threats can leave out another side of the story, he said.

“The downside is, how do you gauge things that didn’t happen? How do you count up the number of crimes that were prevented because of us?”

Read part 1 of this series here.

Read about the ALICE protocol here.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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