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The FBI Weighs in on Preventing School Violence

Reviewed by Annie Finnegan
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 6, 2000 (Washington) -- An FBI report says that the way to discover a potential school shooter is to watch for behaviors suggesting a path toward violence. However, the document warns against looking for stereotypes or "profiles" that strongly predict criminal behavior.

"There is no profile of a school shooter. We say that very firmly in our monograph, and there are no warning signs," says Mary Ellen O'Toole, PhD, an FBI agent and the report's primary author at a Wednesday news conference. Titled The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective, the 45-page report offers a broader but more complex approach to determining risk and taking appropriate action.

"In today's climate, some schools tend to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to any mention of violence. The response to every threat is the same," says the report, which was two years in the making and analyzed some 18 school shootings, including various foiled attempts.

From last year's rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., to shootings in Springfield, Ore., and Paducah, Ky., Americans seem powerless to stop an epidemic of student killings and the subsequent wave of finger-pointing.

The report, written for the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group, says there is another way of responding to the crisis besides calling 911. First, identify and assess the threat, the student's potential for carrying it out based on the "totality of circumstances," then intervene appropriately.

It's often possible to gather intelligence on a planned act of violence through "leakage" -- gossip, computer messages, or other overt indications of imminent danger. A threat, says the report, may be veiled or direct such as, "I am going to place a bomb in the school's gym."

As words become more specific and heated, their danger potential increases, and that's where the threat assessment comes in. "It's a process which involves assessing not just the threat but assessing the individual making the threat in order to determine their potential to actually carry [it] out," O'Toole says.

Ideally, there should be a special team designated to evaluate threats and respond with the appropriate mental health or legal resources. "We can't respond to every child who makes a threat as though they were a potential killer or one of the infamous few who committed school shootings," says Dewey Cornell, a forensic psychologist at the University of Virginia and a contributor to the report.

In spite of the perceptions of increased violence often based on sensational reporting, schools are relatively safer places for children than their own homes, according to FBI officials. More often than not, problem students can be brought back into the mainstream if they're reached in time.

"It's to society's benefit to try and integrate these students. That's why I think the exciting thing about this report [is that] it's an opportunity to identify children at risk, and to give them the type of help they need," says report consultant Gregory Saathoff, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia.

But can hard-pressed schools afford to provide these kinds of expensive support mechanisms?

"In a high school with a shortage of teachers, you'll find many teachers have as much as ... four minutes with each student. ... That is not sufficient time for those teachers to say, 'Does this individual have a problem that may pose a threat?'" says Jamon Kent, superintendent of schools in Springfield, Ore., where former student Kip Kinkel was convicted of killing his parents, two high school students, and wounding 25 others in a shooting spree in 1998.

While some youth advocates are concerned that the FBI threat assessments could be an invasion of privacy, WebMD found a specialist who feels the schools could do more.

"It makes sense to have a team in a school ... personally, I'd rather see people who are already part of the school system trained in appropriate assessment techniques rather than bringing in another layer of outsiders," David Fassler, MD, chair of the Council on Children, Adolescents, and their Families of the American Psychiatric Association, tells WebMD.

However, Fassler says there is a danger that threat assessments themselves could go too far in their efforts to keep children safe.