Read this: I guess it's part of the plan is to lock up crazy people
Preventing Targeted Violence
ABSTRACT: Attacks against judicial officials and the courts are rare events but carry the potential for tremendous impact on the American judiciary. In this article, the authors describe a systematic approach to prevent targeted violence against judges and their courts. They begin with a brief overview of findings from operational research on assassinations and attacks against public officials, including judges. They then review the threat assessment approach, a fact-based risk assessment method developed to prevent assassinations, and examine its utility for evaluating risk of targeted violence toward judges and courts. The authors conclude with a discussion of research recommendations to better understand and prevent targeted violence in the judiciary.
Bryan Vossekuil is a director in the National Violence Prevention and Study Center. He has retired as a special agent of the U.S. Secret Service, where he served as executive director of the Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center. Randy Borum is an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health Law & Policy at the Louis de to Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, University of South Florida, and is a consultant to the U.S. Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center. Robert Fein is a psychologist and director in the National Violence Prevention and Study Center. He serves as a consultant to the U.S. Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center. Marisa Reddy is a research psychologist with the U.S. Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center.
Assassinations and attacks on federal and state judges, like attacks on political leaders and other public figures, are rare but troubling events. Since 1949, in the United States, there have been three known assassinations of federal judges and one attack. In that same time period, there have also been four attacks on U.S. presidents (one resulting in death), two attacks on presidential candidates, two attacks on members of Congress, several assassinations of national political leaders, a number of attacks on state and local elected officials, and more than two dozen instances in which planned attacks on public officials were intercepted before the attacker came within lethal range of his or her target (Fein and Vossekuil 1998, 1999). Although threats made to judicial officials are not uncommon (Brown 1997; Calhoun 1998; Goldstein 1996; Wax 1992), the number of assassinations and attacks on state and local judges, the number of nonlethal attacks on federal judges, and the number of attacks on other federal and state court personnel who are targeted by virtue of their association with the courts are not regularly and systematically documented. Nevertheless, these judicial murders and attacks, like assassinations and attacks on political figures, are all incidents of targeted violence--incidents where an identified (or identifiable) target is selected by the perpetrator prior to the attack (Borum et al. 1999; Reddy et al. in press).
Acts of violence directed against public officials and public figures are profoundly disturbing to most Americans and threaten the basic ideal of a free and open society Mention of the political murders of President John F. Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator (and presidential candidate) Robert Kennedy elicits painful memories for many. The murders of federal judges John Wood Jr., Richard Daronco, and Robert Vance and attacks on federal and state judges likewise underscore risks to the integrity of the American judicial process, particularly in those incidents where a judge's involvement in a court case maybe related to the attack. Attacks on any court official carry the potential to engender fear over personal safety in court buildings as well as mistrust of the effectiveness of the American judicial system. Although these attacks are rare events, their potentially far-reaching impact highlights the need to prevent judicially based targeted violence.
The vexing question is how best to prevent targeted violence toward judicial officials and courts. To date, most efforts have focused on enhancing physical security measures in courthouses (Blau 1995; Rooney 1996; Wax 1992). However, a critical, but often neglected, component of efforts to prevent planned attacks is the development of a protective intelligence capacity, also referred to as threat assessment (Borum et al. 1999; Fein, Vossekuil, and Holden 1995; Fein and Vossekuil 1998,1999). The threat assessment approach is a fact-based approach that has three core components: (1) identifying any persons who appear to have unusual or inappropriate interest in a potential target; (2) conducting investigations of the behaviors of these persons, evaluating the information gathered, and assessing whether the person (or group) poses a risk of violence to the potential target; and (3) developing, and implementing a plan to manage the risk, all with a goal of preventing an attack.
This article proposes a framework for threat assessment to aid in preventing targeted judicial violence. First, we review operational research on assassinations and attacks on public officials and public figures - including federal judges - to dispel popular myths and misconceptions about such attacks. We then describe the guiding principles and elements of the threat assessment approach, distinguish it from other approaches, and examine its utility for evaluating risk of targeted violence toward judges and their courts. We conclude with suggestions for future research that may enhance our understanding of, and ability to prevent, targeted judicial violence.
RESEARCH ON ASSASSINATIONS AND ATTACKS OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS AND PUBLIC FIGURES
The only known operational research on assassinations, which includes assassinations and attacks on federal judges, has been the U.S. Secret Service Exceptional Case Study Project (ECSP), a study of all 83 persons in the United States known to have attacked, or approached to attack, a prominent public official or figure between 1949 and 1996. The ECSP was an operationally focused study. That is, it was principally designed not to examine scientifically or theoretically interesting questions but, rather, to generate behavioral information that investigators and others with protective responsibilities could use to conduct more effective assessments and prevent targeted attacks. Accordingly, the central questions of the study focused on identifying patterns of thinking and behavior among attackers and near-attackers in the days, weeks, and months before their assaults or near-lethal approaches, emphasizing information that an investigator could know or discover prior to an attack. The findings from this study were surprising to some, challenging existing assumptions and conventional wisdom and leading to critical observations about the nature of attack-related behaviors (for a full discussion of the ECSP, please see Fein and Vossekuil 1998, 1999).
Assassination myths and ECSP findings
There are three beliefs about assassination that have been widely held and perpetuated in the popular culture: (1) there is a profile of "the assassin," (2) assassinations are the result of mental illness or derangement, and (3) those who make threats pose the greatest risk. These beliefs, however, were largely unsupported by data from the ECSP and do not withstand critical thinking about assassination behaviors. Because these beliefs are untrue, they are now known to be myths.
Myth 1: There is a profile of "the assassin." Many believe that there is a profile of the American assassin. In actuality, public-figure attackers and near-lethal approachers do not fit any one descriptive or demographic profile (or even several descriptive or demographic profiles). American assassins and attackers have been both men and women. They have ranged in age from 16 to 73. They have varied in educational background, employment history, marital status, and other demographic and background characteristics. Few had histories of arrests for violent crimes or for crimes that involved weapons. Few had ever been incarcerated in state or federal prisons before their public-figure-directed attack or near-lethal approach (Fein and Vossekuil 1998, 1999; Fein, Vossekuil, and Holden 1995).
While there is no assassin profile, there are common behaviors and activities in which assassins and near-assassins have engaged in before their attacks. Mounting an attack on a prominent person requires a number of pre-incident decisions, behaviors, and activities. A potential assassin must choose a target, figure out where the target is going to be, decide on and secure a weapon, survey security, develop a plan for attack, and consider whether or not to escape (and, if so, how). While not every public-figure attacker and near-attacker engaged in all of these activities and behaviors, most engaged in several of them (Fein and Vossekuil 1998,1999).
Myth 2: Assassination is a product of mental illness or derangement. Many believe that an attack on a public figure is a deranged action, without rational or understandable motives, and, by extension, that perpetrators of this type of crime must be mentally ill. In most cases, however, mental illness did not appear to be a primary cause of assassination behavior. Attacks on persons of prominent public status were actions chosen by persons who saw assassination as a way to achieve their goals or solve problems. Mental illness rarely played a major role in assassination behaviors. Most near-lethal approachers and the great majority of attackers and assassins were not mentally ill. Although almost all had some type of broadly defined psychological or emotional problem, relatively few suffered from serious mental illnesses that caused their attack behaviors.
Even for those attackers who were mentally ill, in almost every case an attack was a means to achieve some ends, such as calling attention to a perceived problem. Moreover, in cases where mental illness clearly did play a role in assassination attempts, symptoms of mental illness generally did not prevent the subject from engaging in attack-related activities such as rational planning. In many situations involving persons with severe and untreated mental illness, the symptoms disable the person's usual problem-solving abilities. However, most mentally ill attackers and near-lethal approachers remained organized and capable of planning and mounting an attack. Labeling an attacker or near-lethal approacher as mentally ill, whether accurate or not, does not explain or help predict assassination behavior. It also contributes little to enhancing our ability to investigate or assess potential attackers (Fein and Vossekuil 1998, 1999).
Myth 3: Explicit threateners are the persons most likely to carry out attacks. Much thinking about assassination links threateners and attackers, as if the two categories are one. Many people assume that those who make threats (that is, those who communicate verbally or in writing their intent to harm their targets) are the ones who also pose threats. However, fewer than a tenth of all 83 attackers and near-attackers communicated a direct threat about their targets either to the target or to a law enforcement agency prior to their attack. In actuality, persons who pose threats (that is, those whose behavior indicates they are thinking about, planning, and/or building capacity for an attack) most often do not make threats, especially explicit threats.
These data do not suggest that investigators should ignore threats that are communicated to or about judges or other public officials or public figures. Many persons may have been prevented, or deterred, from taking action because of a prompt response to their threatening cormmunications. These data do suggest, however, that attention should be paid to identifying, investigating, and assessing persons whose behaviors suggest that they might pose threats of violence, regardless of whether they communicate direct threats to their targets or to the authorities. While few assassins and would-be assassins communicated a direct threat to their targets or to law enforcement, two-thirds are known to have spoken or written in a manner that suggested that they were considering mounting an attack against a target. Would-be assassins told family members, friends, work colleagues, and associates about their thoughts and plans or wrote down their ideas in journals or diaries (Fein and Vossekuil 1998,1999).
Key observations on assassinations and attacks
A number of key observations about assassins and their behaviors have emerged from the ECSP. The first is that targeted violence is the end result of an understandable, and often discernible, process of thinking and behavior. Assassinations, attacks, and near-attacks, almost without exception, were neither impulsive nor spontaneous acts. The notion of attacking a public official or public figure did not leap into the mind of a person standing, for example, at a political rally attended by the president. Assassins were not impelled into immediate violent action by sudden new thoughts that popped into their heads. Rather, ideas of assassination developed over weeks and months, even years. For some would-be attackers, such thinking organizes their lives, providing a sense of meaning and purpose or an ending point when they believe their emotional pain will cease. For others, thinking about assassination is compartmentalized. Some potential assassins engage in ongoing internal discussions about their attacks while maintaining outward appearances of normality and regularity. In every case, however, assassination was the end result of an understandable process involving the attacker's pattern of thoughts, decisions, behaviors, and actions that preceded the attack (Fein and Vossekuil 1998, 1999).
The second key observation is that few assassins in the United States - even those whose targets were major political leaders-have had purely political motives. Examination of the thinking and behaviors of the 83 American attackers and near-lethal approachers suggests that they held combinations of eight major motives, most of which were personal. These motives included the following: to achieve notoriety or fame; to bring attention to a personal or public problem; to avenge a perceived wrong; to retaliate for a perceived injury; to end personal pain; to be removed from society; to be killed; to save the country or the world; to fix world problems; to develop a special relationship with the target; to make money; and to bring about political change (Fein and Vossekuil 1998, 1999).
The third key observation is that targets of assassinations and near-assassinations were selected on the basis of the subject's motives, not primarily because of a subject's hostility toward a particular target or office. Whether a subject likes or hates a particular judicial official or other public official may be irrelevant if the subject's motive is to achieve notoriety. "I would have voted for him," said one would-be attacker, "if I hadn't been in jail charged with trying to kill him." For many attackers and would-be attackers, their targets were instrumental, a means to an end. Consistent with their motives, many attackers and would-be attackers considered more than one target before moving to attack. Assailants often made final decisions about which target to attack because an opportunity for attack presented itself or because they perceived a specific target as unapproachable, not because of personal animosity toward a target (Fein and Vossekuil 1998, 1999).
THREAT ASSESSMENT AND PREVENTION OF TARGETED JUDICIAL VIOLENCE
The findings from the ECSP were analyzed and applied by Fein and Vossekuil (1998) to develop and refine the threat assessment approach adopted by the Secret Service for use in preventing targeted violence against the president and its other protectees. The methods and principles from this approach also hold promise in preventing targeted violence directed at judicial officials and the courts.
What constitutes threat assessment?
The threat assessment approach is a set of operational activities driven by an investigative process and focused on strategies for gathering and corroborating information from multiple sources to examine patterns of behavior that may reflect whether a given subject is on a pathway toward a violent act (see Borum et al. 1999 and Fein and Vossekuil 1998 for a detailed description of the threat assessment approach). These activities are designed to identify, assess, and manage individuals who pose a risk of violence to an identified, or identifiable, target.
A threat assessment may be initiated by any communication or behavior that causes concern. Threats are not a necessary threshold for concern; however, the threat assessment approach also dictates that no threat should be ignored. The process of gathering information about the individual includes an investigative emphasis on corroboration of facts to establish their veracity (in contrast with, for example, the typical clinical emphasis on the patient's story or perception of events). The focus of the inquiry is on the individual's behavior in a particular case and what the progression of that person's behaviors may suggest (that is, movement from development of an idea to implementation of a plan). The threshold for concern is evidence that suggests the individual may be on a pathway toward violent action. The threshold is deliberately set low enough to facilitate early intervention, as the emphasis of this approach is on prevention and the development of effective case management strategies.
The threat assessment approach asks the person conducting the inquiry to gather information and answer key questions about the case to determine whether there is evidence to suggest movement toward violent action. The questions focus on motivation for the behavior that brought the person being evaluated to official attention; communication about ideas and intentions; unusual interest in targeted violence; evidence of attack-related behaviors and planning; mental condition; level of cognitive sophistication or organization to formulate and execute an attack plan; recent losses (including losses of status); consistency between communications and behaviors; concern by others about the individual's potential for harm; degree of the individual's desperation; and factors in the individual's life and/or environment or situation that might increase or decrease the likelihood of attack (see Borum et al. 1999 and Fein and Vossekuil 1998 for more detailed descriptions of suggested questions to ask).
Taken together, the information learned from these questions - as gathered from the individual and from corroborating sources (family members, friends, coworkers, supervisors, criminal and mental health records, and so on) - should provide evidence to answer the question of whether the subject is moving on a path toward violent action. In particular, the information gathered regarding factors in the subject's situation that - should they change - may increase or decrease the subject's likelihood of violence can inform the development of a risk management plan.
Threat assessment versus other evaluation approaches
The fact-based threat assessment approach is distinguishable from other methods of violence risk assessment that tend to be conceptually inductive (see Turvey 1999) and that rely primarily on aggregate information about prior events to guide inferences about facts in a specific case. Profiling is one example of an inductive assessment strategy; with profiling, a description of the typical perpetrator is compiled from characteristics shared by known previous perpetrators of that particular type of crime (Homant and Kennedy 1998; Pinizzotto 1984). This profile is then used as a prototype or template against which one can compare an individual who is suspected of being (or of becoming) a perpetrator. While one could construct a profile of a judicial attacker, because targeted violence in the courts is such a rare event, most who fit the profile will not engage in acts of targeted judicial violence (Borum et al. 1999; Reddy et al. in press). Moreover, this profiling method could inappropriately exclude persons who do not fit the typical description but whose behavior suggests they in fact pose a risk of harm to a judicial official.
By way of example, the use of a prospective profile derived from previous assassins would have failed to identify Sara Jane Moore prior to her assassination attempt on President Ford in San Francisco in 1975. The profile most accepted at that time would have predicted Ford's attacker to be male, between the ages of 20 and 40, of slight build, born overseas, unemployed, a loner, and someone who suffered from delusions of grandeur or persecution (Weisz and Taylor 1969). Moore was female, in her mid-40s, of stocky build, born in the United States, employed full-time as an accountant, had been married and had a son, and had no history of delusions at the time she shot at Ford.
Similarly, assessing risk for targeted judicial violence by inductively examining traditional, empirically established risk factors for violent offending is unlikely to be helpful. It is unclear how aggregate data from research studies on other types of interpersonal violence will generalize to specific targeted violence fact patterns (Borum 2000; Borum et al. 1999; Reddy et al. in press). Most of the research on violence risk factors has been conducted on criminal offenders and psychiatric patients and has examined only general violence recidivism as a criterion. Empirical research is not yet available on risk factors for targeted judicial violence. This is not to suggest, for example, that knowing that a subject is currently paranoid and actively abusing substances is irrelevant to appraising risk. Rather, relying exclusively on empirical risk factors could lead an investigator not to consider or inquire about factors that might indicate intent or planning. The relative absence of empirically established risk factors in a given case might lead the professional to inappropriately underestimate risk, even when intent and planning are evident.
The process of threat assessment, by contrast, is fundamentally deductive (see Turvey 1999), focusing primarily on the facts of the particular case in question (rather than on a series of traits shared by similar perpetrators or other violent offenders) to guide inferences about whether the person is thinking about, planning, or building capacity for a violent act. The threat assessment approach emphasizes close examination of the progression of ideas and planning behaviors over time and corroboration of information gathered in the case from multiple sources in contact with the potential perpetrator. Threat assessment is guided by several operational principles and relies on key questions that ECSP research suggests are important to ask when evaluating the risk posed by an individual for acts of targeted violence (Borum et al. 1999; Fein and Vossekuil 1998, 1999; Fein, Vossekuil, and Holden 1995).
Guiding principles of the threat assessment approach
There are three guiding principles, derived from the ECSP and from operational experience, that underlie the threat assessment approach. The first principle is that targeted violence is the end result of an understandable and often discernible process of thinking and behavior. Acts of targeted violence are neither impulsive nor spontaneous. Ideas about mounting an attack usually develop over a considerable period of time. In targeted violence, the subject must engage in planning around a series of critical factors such as which target or targets to select, the proper time and approach, and the means for the attack. A potential attacker may collect information about the target, about the setting of the attack, or about similar attacks. A potential attacker may communicate his or her ideas to others. For some subjects, the process of planning and thinking about the attack dominates their lives and provides a sense of purpose or an attainable goal by which they see an end to their emotional pain. This principle suggests that many incidents of targeted violence may be preventable. Conceptually, this is important since assessing risk for events that are considered to be random would seem to be a contradiction. If, however, they are viewed as the result of a behavioral process, then a fact-based assessment makes sense.
The second principle is that it is important to distinguish between making a threat (expressing to the target or to others an intent to harm the target) and posing a threat (engaging in behaviors that initiate or further a plan to harm the target). Many people who make threats do not pose a serious risk of harm to a target. People may make threats for a variety of reasons, many of which are unrelated to any desire or intent to harm the target. Conversely, many who pose a serious risk of harm will not issue direct threats prior to an attack. While all threats (direct, indirect, conditional, or otherwise) should be taken seriously, they are not the most reliable indicator of risk. Threats should not be established as a necessary factor to initiate an inquiry or preliminary evaluation. The federal courts have even held that in determining what constitutes a "threatening communication" in federal statutes, "an absence of explicitly threatening language does not preclude the finding of a threat" (US. v. Malik , 16 F.3d 45, 2d Cir. Ct. App).
As a practical matter, an individual who is committed to mounting an attack may be less inclined to threaten his or her potential target directly, particularly if he or she does not want to be stopped. Following the assassination of Judge Daronco, U.S. District Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr., spokesman for the Federal Judges Association, noted that the circumstances of Daronco's attack highlighted the "problem that protection is now based on assessment of threat. Unfortunately, people who are going to kill you ain't going to threaten you. They are [just] going to do it" (Blum 1988, 3). Indeed, none of the federal judicial officials murdered between 1980 and the mid-1990s had been recently threatened (Berkman 1994). Accordingly, the key threshold question in a threat assessment is not Did the subject make a threat? Rather, the question is, Has the subject engaged in recent behavior that suggests that he or she is moving on a path toward violence directed at a particular target or targets?
The third principle is that risk for violence is the product of an interaction between the potential attacker, his or her current situation, the target, and the setting. As noted previously, findings from the ECSP showed that there was no profile or typical assassin, so it is imprudent to focus exclusively, or even primarily, on the individual subject characteristics in evaluating the risk of harm. Nevertheless, one might reasonably examine the development and evolution of ideas concerning the attack, preparatory behaviors, and how the individual has dealt with what he or she felt to be unbearable stress in the past. Consideration of the subject's current situation may include an assessment of what stressful events are occurring in the subject's life, how he or she is responding, and how others in the subject's environment are responding to his or her perceived stress and potential risk. Finally,relevant factors about the intended target may include the subject's degree of familiarity with the target's work and lifestyle patterns, the target's vulnerability, and the target's sophistication about the need for caution.
Around 1992, Susan Viola Mat, a 40-year-old divorced nurse living in San Diego, was denied custody of her 15-year-old daughter and subsequently filed several federal actions against the county of San Diego, the state of California, and other parties, alleging violations of her civil rights. When these petitions were denied, she petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995. She wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court about her case in February 1996 that said,
Denying me or anyone else the Constitution's protection while disregarding federal law only demonstrates that this Court lacks the interest and ability to protect all individual's rights or administer justice in any form. One shouldn't have to resort to creating casualties such as the Oklahoma bombing to get your attention, unfortunately experience shows that this is the only method that creates change and ACTUALLY works. (Brown 1997)
Klat reportedly told coworkers at the hospital that if her case was not heard, she would go to Washington, D.C., to shoot the clerk and justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. When the Court declined to review the case in June, she apparently became increasingly distressed. A number of her coworkers were seriously concerned. One said, "She was talking about all these intentions of hers, and she was really packing and moving. It was very frightening" (Brown 1997).
Klat left her job at the hospital in San Diego in August and traveled to the Washington, D.C., area, where she had signed up for a visiting-nurses program. She visited the Supreme Court on at least two occasions. On the first, she could not review her file and made additional threatening comments, some of which were directed toward Chief Justice Rehnquist. On her second visit, she did review the file but stated that some documents were missing, for which she blamed Rehnquist. Klat had also signed up to take shooting lessons at a gun range in northern Virginia. She also called a friend back in California to notify her that she had found someone who could teach her to shoot, and she requested that her assets be liquidated. She was subsequently arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and convicted for making credible threats of harm against the chief justice.
To examine this case from a threat assessment perspective, one might first examine the potential motives for the behavior that first brought Klat to official attention: the letter written to the Supreme Court in support of her petition. One might infer that part of the motivation was to bring attention to, and potentially solve, a personal problem (the perceived denial of her civil rights). This motive would clearly affect her selection of a target, since the courts are the primary venue by which such complaints are resolved and prior lower courts had all dismissed her petitions.
The events surrounding the denial of custody of her daughter and the dismissal of prior legal filings all appear to have represented significant losses, which she found to be quite stressful and with which she was having difficulty coping. Despite her emotional distress, however, her education, job functioning, and behavior in writing and representing herself in legal proceedings and planning for a cross-country move all suggest a reasonable level of cognitive organization that would allow her to formulate and execute an attack plan if she chose to do so.
Indeed, Klat communicated to coworkers and friends that she intended to attack certain officials of the Supreme Court if her case was not heard, and her subsequent behavior was consistent with those communications. That is, she made arrangements to move to the Washington, D.C., area, found a job there, traveled across country, and actually visited the Court. Based on her communications and foreboding remarks, a number of her coworkers were gravely concerned and believed that she would be likely to act on those ideas.
Finally, in considering events that might increase or decrease the likelihood of an attack, one could note the recent denial of certiorari by the Court, the inability to review records at the Court when requested, and the subsequent belief that some documentation was missing and that the chief justice was to blame. Klat's decision to take shooting lessons (and, arguably, her request to liquidate her assets) could be seen as an effort to develop capacity for the attack and, thus, would represent a significant shift in the movement from idea to action. Taken together, these behaviors could be seen as suggesting that Klat was on a pathway toward a violent attack directed at the Court or its officials.
When considering how best to prevent (rather than optimally predict) targeted violence in circumstances where an individual has come to official attention because of threatening or concerning behavior, traditional inductive approaches, such as profiling or tallying risk factors, are unlikely to be helpful. We suggest that a deductive, fact-based approach is needed to investigate and assess the risk for targeted violence against judges and their courts. The threat assessment approach represents a good first step toward identifying and assessing risk posed by individuals for targeted violence against judicial officials and courts. We further suggest that this approach will likely provide a useful investigative framework, leading to better questions, better assessments, and better risk management decisions in preventing targeted violence against judges and maintaining courthouse safety.
Despite our optimism about the threat assessment approach, we also believe that what is most needed for effective prevention of attacks against judges and their courts is empirical research on incidents of targeted judicial violence. One of the shortcomings of inductive assessment strategies centers on the lack of empirical research on targeted violence perpetrated against judges and their courts. We recognize that although the threat assessment approach is based on empirical research on targeted violence, it too lacks the benefit of comprehensive empirical knowledge specifically on targeted violence against judicial officials and courts.
We have two recommendations for empirical research projects that we believe are necessary for better understanding and preventing targeted judicial violence. The first is a systematic compilation and analysis of all assassinations, attacks, and near-lethal approaches of federal, state, and local judicial officials and courts. This type of project could establish the prevalence of attacks and near-attacks on judicial officials and courts as well as identify cases for further operational analysis. The second empirical project would be an operational analysis-similar to that conducted in the ECSP-of the thinking, planning, and other potentially knowable behaviors of those who have assassinated, attacked, or approached for attack with a weapon any judicial official or court. Ultimately, the most effective approach for understanding and preventing these planned attacks will be the one that is informed by empirical knowledge about the antecedents, motives, idea development, communications, and planning behaviors of all known perpetrators of targeted judicial violence.
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Secret Service Report Targets School Violence
School shooters don't snap. They plan. And somebody else usually knows before they attack. The Secret Service advises schools to get troubled kids help before they plot their attack and to find ways to break down the barriers that inhibit students from telling an adult about a planned attack. Included: Tips for identifying potential school shooters. School shooters don't just snap. They plan. And they usually tell a friend or a classmate before they attack, according to the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center in a recently released report, Safe School Initiative: An Interim Report on the Prevention of Targeted Violence in School.
The Secret Service report conveys eight preliminary findings from its study of 41 school shooters involved in 37 school attacks since 1974. Some of the key implications for schools based on those findings include breaking down the barriers that inhibit kids from telling an adult about a troubled classmate; gathering information about a potential shooter from the student's classmates and friends; and providing help for troubled kids before they kill.
The agency looked at how the 41 school shooters had planned, thought, and behaved before they committed the violent crime at school. The Secret Service used the same method it has used to study the behavior and thinking of adults who have attacked or tried to attack major U.S. leaders or public figures during the past 50 years.
ACT ON LEAKAGE
The Secret Service report is the second federal law enforcement agency to recently share its expertise with educators on how to prevent future school violence. Last month, the FBI released its report, The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective. That report explains how schools can assess a threat based on a student's personality and behavior traits.
"The strongest thing these reports [by the FBI and Secret Service] are saying is that [school attackers] often have a high frequency of leakage," said James Garbarino, a psychologist and national expert on youth violence. "The student's intent [to attack] will leak out somewhere." (Garbarino is the author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, Free Press, 1999.)
"Schools need to have a very rapid, sensitive information-gathering system in order to react quickly to that leakage," Garbarino said. Waiting until the next teachers' meeting to pass on information about a troubled student may be too late, he said.
Although school staffs are more sensitive about behavior and communication that may be warning signals since the Columbine tragedy, Garbarino advises schools to assign one individual to whom both students and teachers report their concerns about a student's troubled behavior or communication. "There needs to be a centralized person who puts into better focus what teachers hear and what kids pass on about their classmates," Garbarino said.
SOMEONE USUALLY KNOWS
Both the FBI and Secret Service point out that in nearly every case, the attacker had told at least one other student in advance about the plans for an attack. In one instance, 24 students knew about an attacker's plan to kill other classmates.
Peers play a role in promoting school violence. The Secret Service found that although most school shooters acted alone, peers had encouraged others to commit the violence. In those few cases in which an attacker had not told anyone about the specifics of his plan, his peers knew something "big" was about to happen.
The study reports that in more than 75 percent of all cases, although no adults had been told before the attacks, at least one adult had had concern about the shooter because of the way he behaved or communicated. In more than half the shooting incidents, more than one adult had expressed concern about the shooter before the attack.
RELY ON SCHOOL RESOURCES
Highlights of the Report and Tips for Educators on Evaluating Students Click here to read the compelling highlights of the Secret Service report. Click here to see suggestions from the Secret Service about evaluating potential school shooters.
Adults need to get those troubled kids help, the Secret Service report advises. "Schools may make the best use of their resources by focusing on prevention, and not by relying exclusively on law enforcement to respond to and resolve school-based attacks," the report states. Most shootings were over in fewer than 20 minutes, before law enforcement officials intervened.
The Secret Service tells schools to look at the facts when determining whether a student needs help: How is the potential shooter thinking, behaving, and communicating? Is the student expressing thoughts about killing himself? Is he talking about getting back at a particular teacher or classmate?
The Secret Service found that in most attacks, the student's motive is revenge. Most of the school shooters said students had bullied and harassed them. To help prevent such persecution, schools should improve the school climate -- for example, instituting a no-bullying policy and monitoring places where bullying is most likely to occur.
Schools also need to determine whether a student poses an immediate danger. Is the student talking about getting a weapon and asking questions about how to use it? What influence do his friends have on him? Answering questions like those can help school personnel determine how and when to intervene, the report advises.
The focus of preventing school violence needs to be on getting troubled kids help as well as determining how other schools have resolved near "misses," said Scott Poland, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. "This past year, many schools had a near miss," he said. "We need to look at what worked to prevent it from happening again."
Many schools think the remedy to school violence is placing more police officers -- often called school resource officers -- in schools, Poland said. Though he believes that school resource officers have a role in promoting safe schools, he doesn't believe they can replace school counselors to help troubled kids. "I don't wear a badge and police officers aren't trained counselors," Poland told Education World.
"Columbine kind of shocked the core of the nation, and rightly so," Poland said. Now schools continue to scramble for solutions, such as looking to the Secret Service and FBI for help. He questions the overall impact from the government agencies' reports; he's not sure the reports will help schools predict violent behavior because the agencies' expertise focuses on adult behavior.
PROFILING IS A WASTE
Read More About It!
*Read about the FBI report in the Education World archives article The School Shooter: One Solution Doesn't Fit All. *Read an Education World e-Interview With Youth Violence Expert James Garbarino. *Don't miss Education World's special theme page on Bullying.
The Secret Service, FBI, and Garbarino agree that profiling students who may have traits similar to those of school shooters isn't an effective remedy. The big concern with profiling is that it can include about 25 percent of the students who have similar characteristics to school shooters, Garbarino said.
According to the Secret Service, profiling carries a risk of over-identifying students. The agency points out that the traits and characteristics of school shooters vary too much to be helpful. And schools may miss identifying potential shooters if they focus only on traits and characteristics common to shooters.
For example, not all school shooters were loners, the Secret Service report states. Some were popular students. They were not all on drugs either. Less than one-third had histories of drug or alcohol abuse. And few had been diagnosed with mental disorders before the attack.
Highlights of the Secret Service Report on Preventing School Violence Last week, the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center released its preliminary findings after studying 41 school shooters and 37 incidents. The focus of the report is to convey how school shooters think and behave before they attack. Following are some highlights from the Secret Service report:
*All the attackers were boys or young men.
*Handguns and rifles/shotguns were the primary weapons. In two-thirds of the cases, the attackers had taken the guns from their own homes or from the homes of relatives.
*Most of the attackers had developed the idea to harm an individual at least two weeks prior to the attack.
*Most -- 75 percent -- had planned the details of the attack. Most did so at least two days beforehand.
*Revenge was the key motive for more than half of the attacks. More than two-thirds of the attackers had multiple reasons.
*More than 75 percent of the attackers had told at least one peer before the shooting happened; in more than half the incidents, the attackers had told more than one person.
*The shooters' home environments ranged from stable to neglectful.
*Though some attackers were loners, others were popular.
*Attackers' academic performance varied, from excellent to failing.
*Some attackers had had no observed behavioral problems. Others displayed behaviors that warranted reprimand and discipline.
*Most attackers acted alone, although in almost half the cases, other students had influenced or encouraged the attackers.
*In two-thirds of the cases, the attacker had felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured before the incident. Many had experienced longstanding and severe bullying and harassment, which some attackers describe as torment.
*In 75 percent of the cases, at least one adult had raised concern about the attacker before the incident happened because of his behavior. In more than half the cases, more than one adult had expressed concerns.
*Most of the attackers had experienced suicidal thoughts or had had feelings of depression before the attack.
*More than 50 percent of the attackers targeted at least one school administrator, faculty member, of staff member.
Click here to go back to the story.
Tips on Evaluating Potential School Shooters The Secret Service suggests school officials consider the following factors when determining a student's potential to commit a violent act:
*Focus on the student's behavior and communications to decide whether the student is planning or preparing an attack. If the student is headed on a path toward violence, determine how fast he is moving and where intervention is possible.
*Determine any efforts by the student to acquire, prepare, or use a weapon. That plays a significant role in the attacker's progression from idea to action.
*Consider issues of safe storage of weapons in students' homes; most weapons used in school attacks come from the student's home or from the home of a relative. Realize that many students have access to weapons.
*Focus on prevention methods by making the best use of school resources. Don't rely on law enforcement officials to resolve school-based attacks. Most shooting incidents were not resolved or deterred by law enforcement intervention.
*Gather information from the student's friends and schoolmates when conducting an inquiry. Focus on the influence the student's friends may have on the intent, planning, and preparations of the attack.
*Combat bullying in your school.
*Determine how to best help troubled students in need of assistance. Investigate whether the student is having difficulty coping with major losses or perceived failures, particularly if this is leading to feelings of desperation and hopelessness.
Diane Weaver Dunne
FREE KEVIN WALSH home Page
Kevin Walsh was a political prisoner who was jailed in a mental hospital by the Secret Service for his anti-Bush statements. Kevin Walsh had committed no crimes and the Secret Service had no evidence to charge Kevin Walsh with any crimes.