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FBI report on school violence urges vigilance, intervention


In this story:

Schools that thwarted shootings helped with report

Possible warning signs

Expelling student could increase danger

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Students involved in school shootings often signal what they're about to do, and educators must be prepared to know when and how to intervene, an FBI report said Wednesday.


Though the report did not conclude that every school shooting can be prevented, it did say that an assessment of threats followed by intervention can prevent some violent acts.

"A school cannot ignore any threat of violence," the 45-page report said. "Plausible or not, every threat must be taken seriously, investigated and responded to."

The FBI's behavioral science experts called for a four-pronged assessment of students based on:

  • Their personality traits and behavior

  • Dynamics within their families

  • School environment, including disciplinary policies

  • Social influences such as substance abuse and unmonitored access to violent computer games and movies or the Internet

Schools that thwarted shootings helped with report

Specialists at the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime at Quantico, Virginia, wrote the report after studying 14 school shootings, including the April 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where two students killed 12 other students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

They also studied four cases in which schools and police detected and pre-empted planned school shootings.

Research had begun in 1998 to develop a better understanding of school shooters and the social influences that may have prompted the crimes. However, after the tragedy in Littleton, a public outcry gave new urgency to the FBI's effort.

The report was the product of a symposium held in July 1999 by the Justice Department and the FBI with 160 educators, administrators, mental health professionals, law enforcement officials and prosecutors. Teachers and administrators from all 18 schools where shootings had occurred or been thwarted participated in the discussions in Leesburg, Virginia.

Perhaps mindful of expected criticism from privacy advocates, the FBI authors said they are not proposing targeting individuals before a threat.

"This model is not a 'profile' of the school shooter or a checklist of danger signs pointing to the next adolescent who will bring lethal violence to a school," the report said.

Possible warning signs

After listing behaviors that may warn of impending violence, the report emphasized that "the list should be considered only after a student has made some type of threat and an assessment has been developed."

Twenty-seven personality traits were cited as possible warning signs. Among them:

  • Poor coping skills

  • Low tolerance for frustration

  • Alienation

  • Depression

  • Lack of empathy

  • Exaggerated sense of entitlement

  • Excessive need for attention

  • Intolerance

  • Inappropriate humor

  • Rigid views

  • Low self-esteem

  • Fascination with violence-filled entertainment

In assessing family dynamics, the experts said schools need to consider students' relationships with their parents, access to weapons, and limits on watching television or using the Internet.

The report also called for assessing whether a student is allowed to "rule the roost" at home, whether parents regularly give in to a child's demands for inordinate privacy, and whether the student refuses to share information on activities and friendships.

Among the report's other conclusions:

  • School administrators and teachers need to assess the extent to which the classroom environment may contribute to a student's decision to carry out violence at school.

  • Schools must determine whether they do enough to prevent or punish disrespectful behavior and whether bullying is part of the school culture.

  • Schools must guard against the following: inequitable discipline, adopting an official or unofficial pecking order among students, allowing a student "code of silence" and allowing unsupervised Internet access.

Expelling student could increase danger

The assessment of social dynamics outside the school should include the student's interest in violent entertainment, peer groups and their beliefs, and drug and alcohol use, the report said.

It urges schools to designate threat-assessment coordinators and to form teams that include a law enforcement representative.

The report warns against discipline without proper evaluation of the student's threat or intent.

"It is especially important that a school not deal with threats by simply kicking the problem out the door," the report said. "Expelling or suspending a student for making a threat must not be a substitute for careful threat assessment ... and may actually exacerbate the danger."

The report -- intended for schools, families and communities -- said violent acts are usually preceded by clues. "Nonviolent people do not snap or decide on the spur of the moment to meet a problem by using violence," the report said.

"Instead, the path toward violence is an evolutionary one, with signposts along the way. A threat is one observable behavior; others may be brooding about frustration or disappointment, fantasies of destruction or revenge in conversations, writings, drawing, and other actions."

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Federal Bureau of Investigation
NCAVC - National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime
U.S. Department of Education
CDC: Facts About Violence Among Youth and Violence in Schools
National Center for Education Statistics
  • Statistical analysis report: Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools, 1996-97
National Alliance for Safe Schools
Gun-free Schools Act of 1994

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