School Shooters: What We Know and Why Prevention Is Possible
A campus violence prevention expert and former Chief Research Psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service shares her research — previously published by Ontic — on school shooters and how threat assessment can stop them.
Note: This report contains references to graphic content related to harm of adults and minors.
This past month marked the nine-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, which took the lives of 20 children and six adults. Sadly, this grim date comes on the heels of yet another school shooting, this time in Oxford, Mich.
In the aftermath of shootings, many K-12 schools, colleges, and universities evaluate their practices and wonder if they’re doing enough. To help institutions, this article summarizes what my Secret Service colleagues and I learned when we worked with the Department of Education to talk with school shooters and analyze their pre-attack behaviors. It also covers how to use these pre-incident indicators as part of your threat assessment process to reduce the risk of violence.
Major Commonalities Exist Among Shooters
School shooters don’t “just snap” when they carry out violent acts.
Many school shooters plan their violence and their planning behavior is often observed by their friends, classmates, and sometimes family members beforehand. In fact, their pre-attack behavior often follows what the Secret Service and FBI call a “pathway to violence.”
- They develop some idea to do harm (often to try to solve a problem or handle a situation where they don’t see other options).
- They plan how they want to carry out the harm.
- They prepare for the violent act by accessing firearms, other weapons, and other gear they think they’ll need.
- They implement the plan for violence.
School shooters almost always tell others.
Whether it be their friends, classmates, or online followers, shooters often talk about their violent plans before they carry them out. The FBI calls these communications “leakage.”
Most carry out their shootings because they are feeling desperate, despondent, or in many cases are suicidal.
- They often hope that police will kill them during the school shooting, or they plan to kill themselves at the end of their attack. Some even attempted suicide, but failed, and resorted to carrying out a school shooting instead with the hope that police would end their life.
Oxford Shooter Followed a Similar Pattern
Although the investigation is ongoing, current reporting about the Oxford High School shootings shows a similar pattern of behavior by the accused student prior to the school shooting.
- He posted photos and captions a few days before the shooting on Instagram showing his new 9 mm gun. His mother posted on her social media that she and her son were practicing at the gun range with the gun. From a different account, the student appeared to post a phrase about “becoming death,” and “See you tomorrow, Oxford.”
- Several students at the school stayed home that day or went to a friend’s house instead of going to school, allegedly after hearing about the student’s plans for a school shooting that day. During the shooting, one of his classmates posted a TikTok from lockdown that said, “He’s being true to his word.” This again suggests the shooter posted beforehand about (and/or told friends and classmates about) his plans for a school shooting.
- Law enforcement said they found a journal in the student’s backpack with details about his ideas and plans to shoot up his school.
- He created two videos on his cellphone with details about his intentions to shoot up his school.
I’m often asked why school shooters tell other people beforehand. The answer is that they are hoping someone will stop them. In case after case, students who engaged in violence and students who were stopped beforehand have told us they were uncomfortable with the violent thoughts they were having but didn’t know how to handle them. The same seems true in the Oxford shooting: His teacher found a note on his desk with drawings of a gun, someone being shot, blood, and the words “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”
Using Threat Assessment to Stop School Shootings
How can we use this information to stop a school shooting? In short, we have the potential to stop school shootings by using a process called Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management (BTAM) or “threat assessment” for short.
A threat assessment is a fact-finding process where:
- We look for signs that a person is on a “pathway to violence,” including evidence of planning, leakage, and trying to access lethal weapons to carry out violence.
- If we determine someone is on a pathway to violence, we ask why. The person may be despondent and see violence as a way out.
- When we know the why, we can determine a plan to get the person off the pathway to violence and keep them off. Resources we use to prevent suicide can also be used to prevent school shootings.
When my colleagues and I interviewed school shooters in prison, they often described feeling torn about their violent plans beforehand. The shooters said a part of them felt they had to be violent but a part of them didn’t want to at the same time. So, when my colleagues and I work on threat cases, we always look for that ambivalence because it’s usually there. Even if the person we are assessing has moved far down the pathway to violence, we look for the part of them that doesn’t want to do it. When we can get them help to solve the underlying problems, including by getting them mental health treatment, we can get them off the pathway. My colleagues and I have provided — and continue to provide — threat assessment training to thousands of K-12 schools, colleges, universities, mental health professionals, and law enforcement professionals nationwide. Continuously, we hear back from training participants — sometimes even years later — that they were able to use threat assessment to stop a school shooting in their community and got a struggling student help.
Checklist: Preventing and Preparing for School Shootings
Checklist: Implementing Student Threat Assessment
Threat Assessment Teams for Troubled Students
U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center: Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model ─ An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence
Averting Targeted School Violence: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Plots Against Schools (2021)
About the Author
Dr. Marisa Randazzo, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Ontic Center of Excellence
Former Chief Research Psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service