By Jaclyn Schildkraut
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Columbine high school shooting, there is the inevitable question of, “What have we learned?” Shootings in schools and other public places continue to occur, leaving us grappling with the possibility that the answer to that question is “Nothing.”
We know, of course, that a lot has changed because of the events of April 20, 1999. Law enforcement active shooter response SOPs have evolved dramatically since that day, shifting from responding officers creating a perimeter and waiting for SWAT to secure the scene to solo officers entering the hot zone to neutralize the threat. School safety has changed too – security products are a nearly $3 billion dollar per year industry and kids across the nation participate in lockdown drills in preparation of a shooting that may never happen.
These advancements focus on improving response to an active killer on scene. When it comes to threat assessment practices – trying to identify persons of concern before they become the next school shooter – what have we learned from the Columbine school shooting?
Identifying warning signs
While hindsight is 20/20, looking back over the last 20 years we can identify several red flags that could have been raised on the two perpetrators.
One wrote a school paper on shootings in educational institutions; the other wrote an essay for his creative writing class that eerily foreshadowed the attack they would one day carry out. Both exhibited extreme shifts in behavior, including aggression and rage. They engaged in criminal activity – breaking into a van and stealing electronics.
They also were fascinated with weapons. One of the shooters maintained a website where he posted bomb-making instructions and talked about how the pair had built several explosive devices, even detonating one as a test. In a series of tapes left behind, they noted how a local gun retailer called one of their houses to notify them their magazines were in. The boy’s father answered the phone and said he had not ordered any, but never questioned why the store was calling, something the shooters noted would have likely foiled their plans.
One of the shooters also made direct threats. On that same website, he posted messages about how he wanted to kill as many people as possible, including one of his Columbine classmates he listed by name. That student’s parents alerted authorities, as well as the internet service provider that hosted the website, but no further action was taken, and the website was taken down about a year before the shooting.
Clues about what was to come were there for all to see – yet no one knew how to put the pieces together.
Enter threat assessment
In the aftermath of the Columbine massacre, the practice of threat assessment seemingly took off, led by the efforts of FBI special agent Mary Ellen O’Toole.
The idea behind the practice was not only to identify threats but determine their level of credibility and, by extension, what type of intervention is needed. As O’Toole noted in her report titled “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective,” released in 2000, “[a]ll threats are NOT created equal” so a one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter approach will not be successful. More important, not every threat will rise to the level of being a Columbine (in reality, most threats are made in the heat of the moment and are unlikely to be acted upon), so plans must account for the variation in the concerns that do present themselves.
In the past 20 years, schools across the nation have worked to establish threat assessment teams at the encouragement of O’Toole, the U.S. Secret Service and other entities. When concerns are raised and/or threats reported, these teams are tasked with gathering additional information on the potential danger (how serious and/or credible is it?) and the person involved (do they have, for example, the motivation and means to fulfill their threat?). The team also assesses the potential risk the person poses to the school community and, based on the information they collect, develop intervention and management strategies.
The role of law enforcement
To best serve the needs of the school community and to be able to adequately assess and manage the risk, threat assessment teams must be multidisciplinary in nature. This means involving not only school administrators, but also guidance counselors, social workers, teachers and school resource officers, a position that typically is filled by law enforcement personnel. Together, the team can provide different perspectives about how best to address the threat and work collaboratively together to minimize the risk to the school community. Depending on the jurisdiction, a community-based threat assessment unit on which law enforcement officers sit, may supplement and support the needs of school-based team.
While this strategy is useful for low-level threats, or those that are vague and not likely to impact public safety nor come to fruition, there are other threats that warrant more serious involvement from law enforcement. In some cases, further information may be needed by the school threat assessment team to proceed. Police can serve in an investigative role to help determine the credibility of the threat and assess whether the means for carrying it out are present.
In the most serious situations, where the threat is significant, and danger is imminent, law enforcement may need to intervene for the safety of the school community, including involving other members of the criminal justice system (e.g., the district attorney or courts). It bears noting, of course, that the threshold for law enforcement intervention in any threat assessment falls to the team, but it is nonetheless important for agencies to be involved on an ongoing basis with trainings to ensure that if such assistance is needed, the stakeholders can work together in a more organized manner to address the situation quickly and efficiently.
Moving beyond Columbine
The process of threat assessment has evolved tremendously since the Columbine shooting. Still, as the adage goes, while good news travels fast, bad news travels faster. We are typically more likely to hear about those shootings that are completed as compared to those that are averted. This issue is further compounded by the fact that there is a lack of research on shootings that never happen (though steps have been taken to close this gap). Still, as John McDonald, the executive director of safety and security for Jefferson County (CO) Public Schools, has noted, “Not every threat is a school shooting, but every threat requires us to do our best on our very worst day.” Therefore, it is all the more important to ensure that law enforcement is actively engaged not only within the community and their schools, but also the ongoing process of threat assessment to help keep students and teachers safe.
Jeffco Public Schools security: Behind the scenes
The Jeffco Public Schools safety plan identifies security programs and measures that focus on prevention, intervention and crisis response for 157 schools spanning a 750-square-mile area in Colorado. Security measures include annual “lockdown/active attacker” student and staff training and practice, monthly school drills, and extensive security staff training. In addition, each school has a threat assessment team that receives training annually.
About the author
Jaclyn Schildkraut is associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego. A national expert on school and mass shootings, her research – which focuses on topics related to these events such as school safety, the media and survivors – has been featured both nationally and internationally. She has written several books on the topic, including “Columbine, 20 Years Later and Beyond: Lessons from Tragedy” with Glenn Muschert.