In Everett, Washington in 2018, a young man planned an attack on his high school. He had drawn up plans to shoot students and use explosives at the school. Fortunately, his grandmother read his plan before he carried it out. She contacted authorities, who, following an investigation that uncovered a rifle and several hand grenades, arrested the 18-year-old. The individual is now serving a 22-year sentence for attempted murder.
Such instances of averted school violence, while chilling to learn about, represent a success story from one important perspective: The plan was short-circuited and never came to fruition, saving human lives and suffering. How can we learn from these averted school attacks? How can this sort of information be used to create safer schools?
To answer these and other questions, we asked Dr. Frank Straub, the Senior Director of Violence Prevention Research and Programs at Safe and Sound Schools to respond. Previously, Dr. Straub served as the founder and director of the National Policing Institute’s Center for Targeted Violence Prevention where he developed the Averted School Violence (ASV) Database. Dr. Straub also served for over 30 years in federal, state, and local law enforcement, leading agencies in New York, Indiana, and the State of Washington. During his time with the New York City Police Department, he was Deputy Commissioner of Training and Assistant Commissioner for Counterterrorism. He is the author of numerous publications on averted school violence and many other topics, including, A Comparison of Averted and Completed School Attacks from the Police Foundation Averted School Violence Database.
Why should we study averted acts of violence against schools?
The rationale behind Safe and Sound Schools’ Averted School Violence Project is that we can learn about how and why intended school attacks were stopped. By studying such averted school attacks, we can better identify failure points in safety systems, recognize those policies and practices that may have led to a foiled act, and thereby invest more wisely in school safety. From a practical standpoint, averted incidents occur more frequently than completed attacks, giving us a bigger sample to learn from. We identify and analyze completed attacks as well. The ultimate goal, of course, is to prevent future attacks.
Any surprises when comparing completed versus averted acts of school violence?
Surprisingly, our data indicate more similarities than differences when we study averted and completed targeted school attacks. For example, averted and completed attacks occur with more frequency in suburban and rural communities than in urban communities. Public high schools with less than 2,000 students are the most frequent targets of current or recently former students, ages 14–18, who plan or carry out targeted school attacks.
One critical difference between averted and completed attacks is how leakage is handled. Leakage occurs when others know about the planned attack before it occurs because the intended perpetrator has told someone, posted a threat online, and so on. Unfortunately, in completed acts, either this leakage was not reported, or if it was reported, no one acted on it. As we are learning from averted incidents, as in the example from Washington above, leakage did lead to the planned attack being foiled. Maybe it was a friend, a family member, or another student, but someone reported this leakage to the local or school police, or to educators, so that someone intervened.
One of the “surprises” we are seeing now is that persons planning targeted school attacks are getting younger, and more and more of the planners are engaged in online extremist and/or violent ideology.
We caution, however, that the ASV data is based on incidents we identify in the public domain (usually news reports or social media) or that educators or others in the school community report to us. We know we are missing instances of school violence that were averted but went unreported, which is why we want to really encourage publicity of the database and increase reporting.
What insights does the ASV data provide for school-based behavioral threat assessment teams?
Behavioral threat assessment teams are critical to identifying high-risk/high-need students and preventing targeted school attacks. One of the important lessons we’ve learned is that behavioral threat assessment teams represent the first step in what can be a long process of intervention and management of high-risk adolescents in a community context. These multi-disciplinary behavioral threat assessment and management teams have an opportunity to identify concerning behaviors, intervene, and therefore stop intended acts of violence.
But what is concerning? What should get their attention? ASV provides critical information regarding the motivations, behaviors, and methods of persons who planned and or completed the more than 300 incidents of school violence recorded in the database. It’s a good source of information on the types of behaviors that intended attackers were exhibiting on their pathway to violence.
How has the ASV data been used to address needs?
We learned from our data on averted and completed school violence that the high-risk/high-need student that comes to the attention of a behavioral threat assessment team has to be managed in the community as well as the school. Even more critically, these individuals can be lost between systems—school, mental health, law enforcement, juvenile/criminal justice, and other agencies—particularly when they leave school and fall from everyone’s radar.
These data, in part, led to a new program, Prevent 2 Protect, a collaborative effort by Michigan State University’s Department of Psychiatry and Safe and Sound Schools to prevent adolescent involvement in school violence. In Michigan, high-risk/high-need students identified by school behavioral threat assessment and management teams can be referred to Prevent 2 Protect. If the student meets our criteria, they receive a full psychiatric evaluation, an in-depth assessment of criminogenic factors, and a needs assessment. The student and their families receive an individualized care plan and then work with our community-based intensive support teams—a case manager and a mentor—who help the student and their caregivers navigate support and intervention systems longitudinally. We are thrilled that the state of Michigan has invested in providing this program to its state’s educational community for the next five years.
How can schools and police departments contribute to the ASV database?
School personnel, law enforcement, mental health practitioners, students, parents, and other members of school communities can enter an incident into the Averted School Violence Database. Reports can be made anonymously, or the persons can provide contact information, which allows the ASV team to follow up (confidentially) and obtain additional information.
What barriers are you facing in this work?
Funding has posed challenges over the years. However, we have received increasing financial support from the Motorola Solutions Foundation. Michigan State University’s Prevent 2 Protect project is also providing financial support through September 2027. The funding has allowed us to rebuild the website and database, which will facilitate user access and improve data analysis and reporting.
Increasing the number of averted incidents reported to the database by practitioners in the field remains a challenge. Most of the incidents were identified by the ASV team in the media or in social media.
What can the Justice and Prevention Research Center (JPRC) do?
The JPRC can continue to help promote the Averted School Violence project and encourage members of school communities to report incidents of averted and completed school attacks to the database. This article is a great start. We also welcome the JPRC as a research partner as we move ahead to make schools and communities safer.