Tech Innovations

COPS Office and Police Foundation Release Reports on Averted School Violence

By Becky Lewis Published February 2019

After years of listening to warnings that school shootings can happen anywhere, there’s some newly released research to back them up.

With funding from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the Police Foundation has recently produced two reports based on information from its Averted School Violence (ASV) database (https://www.asvnearmiss.org/): Preliminary Report on the Police Foundation’s Averted School Violence Database and Comparison of Averted and Completed School Attacks from the Averted School Violence Database. Both reports offer case studies, statistical analysis, findings, recommendations and conclusions, and key among them are two from the Preliminary Report: 1) Never assume that a school attack won’t happen in a small, tight-knit community, and 2) never discredit any threat because a student does not “fit” a stereotype; there is no one profile of an attacker.

The 51 incidents drawn from the ASV for analysis in the 40-page report were selected based on the amount of information available in open sources and also were drawn from a wide range of states. Analysis covers demographics and grade level, school security measures, who discovered the plot and more. It lists a number of key findings, including:

  • Most potential school attacks were averted because students reported their concerns about another student’s threat, plot or other concerning behavior.
  • When students heard information that concerned them and they did not report it, it was primarily because they did not take the threat seriously.

The 42-page companion Comparison Report evaluates the same 51 averted incidents along with 51 completed attacks, with a goal of providing lessons learned about how to prevent school violence. It includes statistical analysis of school safety features, geography, type of school, school size, age of attacker, number of victims, gender, ethnicity and more. It presents a number of recommendations for schools, parents, law enforcement and the general public, and notes that although school attacks are often described as if they are part of a homogeneous group, analysis makes it clear there are many different types of attacks, which present different challenges in terms of prevention.

Frank Straub, director of Center for Mass Violence Response Studies for the Police Foundation and co-author of the Comparison Report, says he finds the presence of leakage to be one of the most important pieces of information to come out of the research: “Nearly all of the perpetrators of completed attacks, as well as individuals whose plans were averted, talked about the fact that they were going to carry out an act of violence. This suggests an opportunity to prevent these type of attacks. There’s a lot of talk about whether social media monitoring can be successful, and this indicates it could be a valuable tool to prevent not only attacks, but also suicide and bullying.”

Another important conclusion, he says, is that often, before an individual began plotting an attack, he/she experienced a life-changing event, such as parental divorce, a relationship breakup or a family move; such events led to issues like depressed mood, impaired social-emotional functioning, hypersensitivity to criticism and social withdrawal.

“We’re very focused on the physical security of schools, and that’s very important, but the hard work really is around identifying youth in school settings who are beginning to withdraw or have withdrawn, who are either self-isolated or isolated by their peers, and who may be challenged by life events,” Straub says. “These findings suggest the need to have mental health practitioners engaged in the school community and to have threat or behavioral assessment teams working to identify not just individuals who are acting aggressively but also those who we need to identify and re-engage. And school resource officers can play a key role on the behavioral assessment team and in engaging with the student body.”

“It’s easy to see things like locks, ballistic windows, access control and so on. It’s more challenging to quantify results from identifying children in need and getting them to appropriate resources. We may never be able to know whether we’ve prevented an act of violence, but we do know we’ve gotten them the help they need,” he adds.

Straub also stressed the importance of schools having a good relationship with their SRO or local law enforcement, and in having an anonymous reporting system and working to build trusting relationships so students feel more comfortable in sharing their concerns.

“There was a student who had been ostracized and bullied, and who decided to bring a gun to school. Another student reported it to an assistant principal, and the student was brought to the office and the gun was recovered without an incident. The important part of this particular story is the student returned to the school a year later and successfully graduated,” Straub says. “All this happened because she received the help that she needed.”

Sidebar
About the Averted School Violence Database
Launched in 2014, the goal of the Averted School Violence (ASV) Database is to encourage school personnel, law enforcement officers, mental health professionals and others involved in school safety to share case studies and lessons learned to help improve school safety and prevent future attacks. Submissions are anonymous and confidential. The database serves as a resource that shares how school attacks from across the country have been identified and prevented.

The ASV project defines an incident of averted school violence as a violent attack planned with or without the use of a firearm that was prevented either before or after the potential perpetrator arrived on school grounds but before any injury or loss of life occurred.

Frank Straub, director of Strategic Research, stresses the importance of reporting averted attacks to the database. Reporting is anonymous and allows the Police Foundation to increase the robustness of the information and improve the quality of the research.

“We started the database because we believe there are many more averted cases than completed in this country,” Straub says. “If we continue to build the database, we can increase our ability to learn what we can do to improve the safety of our children. We believe it has great potential for saving lives.”