The Secret Service Threat Assessment Center recently issued a report analyzing 67 failed plots by students against their schools. Although there was plenty in the report for the predictable policy groups to tout (restrict access to guns, increase mental health interventions), there are several important points for schools and other youth-serving organizations to consider. Those include:
1. Bullying - Plotters were most often motivated by grievances with classmates. Schools need to find or develop a robust program for identifying and preventing bullying, and for de-escalating conflict. Even the most effective anti-bullying programs reduce the problem by only 20%, and preaching "no bullying" seems to have the worst success rate of all. One program that seems to be most effective takes students through empathy exercises.
2. Student Resource Officers - SROs played an important part in avoiding violence, often through getting a report from students. SROS who are trusted adults in the school community played a positive role. On the other hand, the report emphasizes the importance of intervening before there are legal consequences to the student's attitudes. If the SRO only has or uses the tool of sending a troubled child to juvenile court, then they will not be effective.
3. Zero Tolerance - Expelling the child from school without putting other support in place does not help. It simply deprives them of resources, labels them, and adds to their grievances. Contrary to what lawyers like to think, kicking a child out of school does not necessarily keep them away. More important, zero tolerance policies do not reduce bullying and may even make the problem worse.
4. Other Students - The study found that the plotter's friends and classmates most often saw communications about plans for violence. One problem the study highlighted is that the other students often did not understand the significance of what they were seeing or were afraid to report on their friend. The study's recommendation -- more training for students -- seems overly optimistic. The teenage taboo against telling on your friends is a strong one, and more preaching from adults is not likely to help. More resources and trusted adults seems to be a better answer. Again, those trusted adults need a bigger toolbox than zero tolerance policies, legal consequences, or expulsion.
5. Parents - Many plots were thwarted due to reports from the plotter's parents or parents of friends and classmates who had expressed concern. Educating parents and the community about danger signals is important, but it may be even more important to give parents additional resources to find help. The danger usually has to be extreme before parents are willing to expose their child to legal authorities.
This report is an important resource for schools and other youth organizations. Helping troubled children before they resort to violence is the best way to keep other children in our programs safe.
Individuals contemplating violence often exhibit observable behaviors, and when community members report these behaviors, the next tragedy can be averted.