Preventing Targeted Violence in Our Academic Institutions

Preventing Targeted Violence in Our Academic Institutions

The strategic importance of establishing a behavioral threat assessment capability

Virginia Tech. Columbine. Northern Illinois University. Today, the names of these schools are recognized across the country for the wrong reasons. They are now headlines seared into the national conscience like the names of early battles in a war that academic board-members and senior administrators have never been trained to address. The harsh reality is that - in one form or another - targeted violence is now happening with rising frequency in our schools (as well as our workplaces, public locations and private residences) every single day.

What the vast majority of academic leaders, along with their executive counterparts, don't yet realize is that there is an enormously powerful body of knowledge - key principles, best practices, and cost-effective counter-strategies - that can minimize the risks of such a devastating event. As a nation, we actually know how to counter this threat. The problem is that most academic institutions aren't aware that this insight exists and consequently are not taking the crucial steps necessary to protect their students and staff as well as their facilities and reputations.

It's not that universities in every state aren't taking action. They are. Academic leaders and administrators across the nation are trying hard to deal with this new challenge. Targeted violence is now increasingly a leading priority for academic boards they are revising budgets to address this risk. And administrators are trying to come up with acceptable answers to a host of new questions from parents of both current and prospective students.

But the bulk of university board and administration efforts are missing the mark. Why? Most are focused almost exclusively on making sure the right steps are taken after an event has occurred. They're focused on managing a crisis - responding quickly and in force. They're focused on containing the threat and on quickly communicating the danger to campus populations without the delays that more than tripled the carnage at Virginia Tech.

These are important steps. But they're not enough. What academic institutions need to do is minimize the likelihood that these acts of targeted violence will ever occur in the first place. They need to shift from a strategy based purely on response to one based much more strongly on prevention.

Let's define what we're talking about. Based on the concept first developed by the U.S. Secret Service, the term targeted violence refers to situations in which an identified (or identifiable) perpetrator "poses (or may pose) a threat of violence to a particular individual or group." These targeted violence situations include school violence as well as other criminal behaviors such as stalking, domestic violence, workplace violence, bias-motivated hate crimes and the singling out of executives, celebrities, public officials or their families.

Much of what we know today about the thinking and behavior of potential attackers was pioneered by the U.S. Secret Service as a critical component of the agency's mission to prevent assassination attempts on the President of the United States and other U.S. and foreign leaders. This early work - and over 100 years of experience, tradition and culture - have helped the Secret Service develop unique insight and perspective on targeted violence - well before incidents of workplace violence, school violence and other related crimes became as commonplace as they are today.

Some of the most actionable information on targeted violence, however, is quite new. Even as recently as 20 years ago, the Secret Service was still in the early stages of developing insight into the motivations and behaviors of people capable of unleashing this type of violence on others. In the late 1980's, for example, there were a number of serious Secret Services cases that challenged the agency's traditional beliefs about assassins and their behavior. These beliefs were based on assumptions that a person posing a threat (1) had a single direction of interest, (2) would make an explicit threat, (3) held hostility toward his or her target, and (4) would bring himself or herself to the attention of the Secret Service2. In each and every one of these serious cases, the Secret Service did not become aware of the subject until after he or she had appeared on site with a weapon. This realization was, in part, a key driver behind the Secret Service's decision to launch a landmark inquiry into the mind of an attacker.

In 1992, the Secret Service, in partnership with the National Institute of Justice and with assistance from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, began the Exceptional Case Study Project3, a five-year study to examine the thinking, intentions and behavior of the 83 individuals who have attacked, or approached to attack, prominent public officials in the United States since 1949. These attackers include notorious individuals such as Squeaky Fromme, John Hinckley and Arthur Bremer, as well as many individuals still unknown to the public.

Then in 1999, in the wake of the attack at Columbine High School, the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education launched the Safe School Initiative, a collaborative effort to examine recent school-based attacks in order to identify pre-attack behaviors and communications that might be detectable - or "knowable" - and could help in preventing some future events. The key findings from these two studies aren't just fascinating; they're also crucial information for virtually every academic institution in this country.

Here is a summary of some of the most important results emerging from these studies - combined with insights we have gleaned from our personal experience both as former U.S. Secret Service agents and as strategic security advisors to academic institutions, major sports teams and business organizations throughout the United States and the world. Each of these ten findings carries enormous new implications for targeted school violence awareness and prevention programs.

1. From bias crimes to school violence, incidents of targeted violence share a critical characteristic in common: they're usually the end-result of an understandable and often discernable process of thinking and behavior. In other words, they're not random, sudden or impulsive acts. What's the implication for prevention? A "discernable" process is one we can identify and interrupt.

2. Targeted school violence is the product of an interaction among three factors: (a) the individual who takes violent action, (b) the "stimulus" or triggering conditions that lead the subject to see violence as an option, a "way out" or a solution to their problems or life situation, and (c) a school setting that facilitates or permits the violence to unfold - or at least does not stop it from occurring. Prevention programs should help administrators increase their awareness about each of these factors - and help them take action before these factors interact.

3. There is a critical difference between making a threat and posing one. Threats of violence arise from a wide range of feelings or ideas. Sometimes a threat is backed by the will and capacity to do harm. At other times, a voiced threat may amount to nothing but emotional "venting." It's important to realize that those who make threats may not pose a threat and those who pose a threat may not make a threat. Another important corollary to this finding is that mental illness is not critical to determining "dangerousness." University administrators and security personnel should be prepared to make judgment calls based on these distinctions.

4. There is no accurate or useful "profile" of students who engaged in targeted school violence. In many cases, an attacker's past records will show few arrests for violent crimes. And attackers rarely direct threats to the target or to law enforcement. These findings imply, first, that the absence of a record should not be considered a reason to lower vigilance with respect to any given individual, when other behaviors of concern exist. Secondly, those tasked with helping to prevent attacks must be trained to look for much more subtle indicators - behavior or correlations between indicators - of a possible attack.

5. How do attackers select their targets? Based on two factors, according to study results, (1) their motives, and (2) accessibility. There are several key implications here worth noting. If there is likely to be a logical link - at least in the attacker's mind - between target and motive, then the more we know about one, the more insight we're likely to gain into the other. At the same time, if accessibility has been shown to dissuade an attack, then academic institutions need to redouble efforts to ensure that core traditional security precautions, technologies and practices continue to play their important role in preventing future events.

6. Attackers have a wide range of motives. For most, violence is a rational means to a goal or a way of solving a problem. Some subjects also see violence as a way to end their personal suffering and pain through suicide. Others may want to achieve fame or notoriety, bring national attention to a perceived problem, or avenge a perceived wrong.

7. Many attackers plan their attack for weeks, months or even years in advance. They approach or visit potential attack locations. They approach or visit the site with a weapon. They attempt to penetrate security. And many consider several targets. Among other implications for prevention, what this means is that a vigilant and informed academic community is a safer one.

8. Prior to many attacks, other students know about the attacker's idea and/or plan to attack - and are involved in some capacity. Most attackers engage in some behavior prior to the incident that causes others concern or indicates a need for help. And many have a history of harassing or stalking others. The signs may not be obvious. But that doesn't mean they aren't perceivable by someone or anyone. In fact, many attackers feel bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack or have difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Clearly, one of the most important goals for any effective security awareness program should be encouraging members of the academic community to share information that is relevant - in a timely manner.

What the vast majority of academic leaders don't yet realize is that there is an enormously powerful body of knowledge ... that can minimize the risks of such a devastating event.

9. Many attackers have access to and have used weapons prior to the attack. This was certainly true, for example, for attackers Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine and Steven Kazmierczak at NIU - as well as for hundreds of other perpetrators of acts of targeted school violence.

10. Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most attacks are stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention and most are brief in duration. Consider what happened at Virginia Tech. Over an 11-minute period, Cho fired 174 rounds, killing 32 people, wounding 17 and finally shooting himself. In spite of the fact that the police arrived within three minutes after the first 911 call was placed, they were powerless to stop the violence. This finding highlights the importance of focusing not just on emergency planning but, just as vitally, on prevention measures including well-defined protocols and procedures for responding to and managing threats and other behaviors of concern.

By itself, this body of insight won't prevent an attack. To be useful and effective, this information must be carefully integrated within a best practice-based approach to prevention.

Based on our experience as well as the preponderance of existing research on targeted school violence, the single most effective strategy for preventing a school-based attack is a behavioral threat assessment (BTA) program. This fact-based investigative and analytical program helps administrators and university officials focus not on whether a particular student "looks like" students that have carried out attacks in the past but on how the student is "behaving" and "communicating". Behavioral threat assessment programs give universities the ability to (1) "pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a risk of a targeted school attack" and (2) "employ the results of these risk evaluations or threat assessments in developing strategies to prevent potential school attacks from occurring." In short, behavioral threat assessment programs are designed, organized, managed and measured in accordance with the three processes crucially important to any threat management capability.

The first process is identifying threats and potential perpetrators. This involves (1) defining criteria that could make any given student or staff the subject of a threat assessment inquiry; (2) determining the areas within the university's internal and external administrative, health services or security organizations that will be responsible for collecting, receiving and sharing information about possible subjects and conducting threat assessment inquiries; (3) notifying students, teachers, staff or parents that might come in contact with - or know of - potential subjects about the existence of the threat assessment program; and (4) educating notified individuals and organizations about the criteria for bringing a concern about potential violence to the attention of the university and the protocols defining exactly how to handle this potentially urgent and sensitive information in an effective and responsible manner6.

The second key process in a behavioral threat assessment program is investigating these individuals and their circumstances and assessing the risks of violence posed by a given subject at a given time. This involves a focus on two areas: conducting an investigation of a particular subject and potential targets and evaluating this information for (a) evidence of conditions and behaviors consistent with an attack and (b) indications that the subject is either moving toward or away from an attack.

The third process is managing both the subject and the risks that he or she poses to the target and the university. Key steps in this regard include developing a plan that moves the student away from viewing violence as a viable option; implementing this plan while simultaneously allowing adaptation as key aspects of the subject's life and circumstances change; and closing the case once all risks of violence and harm have been properly mitigated and resolved.

How do you start putting such a program into place? Commissioning an independent, third-party audit and review of the university's vulnerability to targeted violence is a good place to start. Make sure that this external assessment also includes a rigorous examination of the existing security program's readiness to support a violence prevention capability. Key factors include the following:

  • A strategic approach: Instead of falling into an ad hoc commitment to one or two select goals, you'll want to make sure that you take a top-down, strategy-based approach to your school violence prevention program in the context of your broader security objectives.
  • Leadership: One of the most critical success factors is ensuring that executive sponsorship for the program is clear, highly visible and frequently communicated.
  • Budget: Program funding should be sufficient to meet the scale and scope of the institution's risk and vulnerability - and consistently sustained over time.
  • Education and awareness: The lifeline of a violence prevention program is the participation - either directly or indirectly - by every member of the community. Essential to this is broad-based awareness training and education for all students, teachers and staff.
  • Internal communication and sharing: A clear set of processes, protocols and communication procedures should be in place to ensure that information, insight and decision-making is appropriately shared and coordinated with relevant personnel across the university departments.
  • External coordination: Security administrators should be aware of the availability and expertise of other agencies and systems outside of the institution - and be prepared to alert and coordinate these entities to help solve problems presented by a given case. Examples of such systems are those employed by prosecutors, courts, probation, corrections, social service and mental health agencies.

Lastly, the program should be assessed by a qualified, independent third party on a regular, periodic basis; assessment findings and recommendations reviewed at the highest level of the organization; and appropriate actions taken.

Remember: prevention starts at home. Academic boards and university leaders expecting external law enforcement resources to address the risks to students, teachers and staff are overlooking crucial opportunities to protect them. Traditional law enforcement practices and personnel focus primarily on procedures after a crime has taken place - investigating the event, seizing evidence and arresting suspects and prosecuting the accused. In fact, unless law enforcement officials have received specific training on violence prevention and threat assessment, they are not likely to take advantage of information reported to them in an effective manner. And in a worst-case scenario, they may fail to respond in any meaningful way at all.

You can't depend on others. Don't make the mistake of assuming that when a situation first arises in your organization, that there's a quick fix available. By the time an event has occurred, you have almost certainly missed at least several opportunities to prevent it. Instead, embrace the fact that today, your institution - like many other academic, business and legal organizations - is in a far better position than it has ever been to leverage a prevention-oriented approach to preventing violence within the university community. Consider doing so without delay. And trust us: you will save lives.

Arnette Heintze is partner and chief executive officer and Matthew Doherty is senior vice president at Hillard Heintze, LLC.