Insights on School Shootings
What You Should Know
|FBI behavioral analyst Supervisory
Special Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole says
that despite media attention, “attacks are
An unrelated series of shootings at schools in recent weeks has people wondering about the safety of their children and how they can help prevent future attacks. We talked with one of our behavioral analysts, Supervisory Special Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D., to get some insights.
First, be vigilant, especially now, when the events are still generating headlines, says O’Toole, who works in the Behavior Analysis Unit of our Critical Incident Response Group at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. “We do believe a copycat effect takes place after these events.”
That means more than just being watchful and wary of who’s out of place in a neighborhood or school. It also means paying attention to the behavior of the people around you—especially those you know. “Be aware of people’s moods. Don’t depend just on how they answer the question, ‘How are you doing?’”
There can be plenty of signs. Most school shootings are not spur-of-the moment events, she says. They take planning and coordination. Supplies—and weapons—have to be purchased or collected. Some attackers practice firing their gun or scout locations. They often write suicide notes or other correspondence explaining their last acts.
“People who act out violently don’t wake up one morning and snap. There are clues,” O’Toole says.
Second, take all threats seriously, especially those leveled by teens, and have a strategy in place to deal with them. “Adolescents will sometimes alert you ahead of time that they will commit violence,” O’Toole says. “Don’t dismiss it as idle talk.”
In the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School killings, most schools in the U.S. have implemented some kind of threat assessment system. Unfortunately, there is no single profile for a potential mass killer, young or old.
“There is no typical school shooter. They don’t fall within a set of traits and characteristics,” she says. “That’s why it is so important for schools to have a fair, rational, and standardized method of evaluating and responding to threats.”
Third, please know that no matter how watchful we may be, some tragedies may simply not be preventable.
“There may not be a single thing that can be done to prevent a mission-oriented person from committing an act of violence,” she says.
“We all want to believe that if we choose just the right community or just the right neighborhood we won’t be a victim of crime,” O’Toole says. “Unfortunately, school shootings can happen anywhere in the country. There is no one location that’s necessarily immune from this kind of violence.”
“But remember,” she says, “despite the images splashed across televisions, the web, and newspapers, these attacks are relatively rare.”