The Usual Response to Mass Shootings and Violence

Post-investigations of acts of violence that occur at schools and other locations in our society attempt to examine the violent act holistically. That is, investigations seek to determine what motivated the perpetrator (s) to commit the act of violence and, more importantly, to try to figure out why they chose to commit the act at this location. A holistic evaluation of a shooting or a related violent event is one of a multitude of perspectives that assess the violent incident. Typically, at least in the media, the investigation into the “whats” and the “whys” of a mass shooting or mass killing focuses on missed warning signs exhibited by the perpetrator that may have foreshadowed their intent. Furthermore, institutions may conduct a postincident examination in order to try to determine the role that stakeholders played—or can play—in the areas of protection, education, and guidance as they address victimization and prevention of future violent episodes. By exploring violent incidents that have occurred in schools and other locations, we can attempt to address questions that may lead to early detection and an efficient threat assessment policy being developed and implemented in an effort to prevent future tragedies. In order to carry out a threat assessment or to conduct a post-incident evaluation of a violent event, intelligence is necessary.

Risk Factor Approach

Because of mass shootings that gained national attention in the 1980s and 1990s, some researchers began to focus on compiling lists of factors that could be used to predict crime and violence (Feeley and Simon, 1992; Lipsey and Derzon, 1998; Shader, 2001; Loader and Sparks, 2002; Farrington, 2007; Simon, 2007). Shader (2001) suggested that this approach was based on a medical model, in which factors known to predict adverse outcomes were used for prevention purposes. It was the FBI, responding to the number of school shooting incidents in the 1990s, that put together a report detailing a number of risk factors that could lead to a student bringing weapons to school in an attempt to kill classmates and teachers.The report was careful to point out that it was not a psychological “profile” (O’Toole, 2000, p. 1), but it gave warning signs that indicated whether a student who made a threat should be taken seriously. These warning signs, or risk factors, covered four different areas—personality, family, school, and social dynamics.

In 2000, several organizations, the U.S. Secret Service, the National Association of School Psychologists, the FBI, the National School Safety Center, and the American Psychological Association, collaborated to produce a report on risk factors associated with the perpetrators in nine school shooting case studies (Verlinden, Hersen, and Thomas, 2000). This report suggested that risk factors for school shootings are likely to be different than risk factors for youth violence in general, and the report concluded that no one profile fits all school shooters.

A Threat Assessment

These early attempts to predict the perpetrators of school shootings tend to fall into the categories of profiles and risk assessments. However, today we see the limitations of profiles and risk assessments, and instead consider threat assessments. A threat assessment differs from a violence risk assessment because risk assessment focuses on predicting future acts of violence, while threat assessment focuses on preventing a prospective and specific act of violence (Cornell, 2010). A threat assessment is initiated when a threat is expressed directly to the potential victim, or through communication with friends, family, or peers. This communication of a threat of violence generally causes concern and often leads a victim or an observer to contact the authorities. When the authorities believe there is potential for a targeted act of violence, an ideographic approach of threat assessment is authorized (Meloy, Sheridan, and Hoffmann, 2008).

An ideographic approach refers to a case study approach in which an individual, rather than a group of potential perpetrators, is identified and studied (Meloy et al., 2008).

The threat assessment approach is considered to be more innovative and advanced than general risk assessments, according to Andrade-Morales (2017), because the ideographic threat assessment examines an individual who already has the intention to harm another individual (or group of individuals). This approach does not base its examination on comparing the potential perpetrator to a psychological profile of a violent offender (Reddy et al., 2001), which occurs in violence risk assessment. Researchers have suggested that threat assessment avoids profiling because general checklists of warning signs cannot determine if an individual will commit a violent act (Böckler, Seeger, Sitzer, and Heitmeyer, 2013). Although research has provided identifiable characteristics of students who commit acts of violence, these individuals generally have different characteristics. By contrast, threat assessment looks at the individual characteristics of the perpetrator, including how the perpetrator is thinking, his or her behaviors, and the motivation for the threat. The individual characteristics determine if the perpetrator is moving in the direction of committing the violent act. Furthermore, the threat assessment approach is based on examining direct, threatening statements and behavior, and then moving toward prevention (Böckler et al., 2013).

The task of threat assessment incorporates the services of law enforcement and mental health professionals. A multidisciplinary strategy, threat assessment includes defining the nature and degree of the risk, as well as identifying the target or targets (Borum, Fein, Vossekuil, and Berglund, 1999). A multifaceted, fact-based approach provides the greatest reliability in determining the nature and degree of risk. It utilizes investigative techniques that aid in identification, assessment, and management of the individual who proclaimed the threat (Borum et al., 1999).

In general, it can be said that threat assessment, as it relates to the school and/or a business environment, is a process in which an identified threat is examined from multiple perspectives to determine the motivation of the offender, specifics of the targeted victims, the reason as to why the violence might take place within a particular environment, and the roles and responsibilities that managers and administrators (stakeholders) take and hold. Intelligence is crucial for a threat assessment, as facts and credible information are necessary for a threat assessment to begin. However, once the threat and motivation are identified, officials and administrators can move toward implementing safety strategies intended to curb and prevent any violent acts from occurring within that setting.

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