School Shootings: Have We Learned Anything Yet?

HSToday’s Executive Editor Kristina Tanasichuk sat down with Bruce Alexander, president of Security 1 Solutions and a 30-year law enforcement veteran in the U.S. Army, Department of Energy, and the State Department to discuss what we as a nation have learned about school shooters and how we can be more vigilant to stop the next one. 

HSToday: Have we learned anything about these shooters?

Bruce Alexander: Yes, we have learned a great deal but, unfortunately, post-incident. There are always signs that exist prior to the event, mostly notably in cyberspace, which while not definitive, in this case pointed to a propensity to use violence, a real or imagined grievance, and in some cases, a defined target(s) of fellow students.

There are contributing factors that may have contributed to or triggered the shooting, but it’s never as easy as distilling it down to one common factor for all shooters. In one case, it might be the loss of a parent(s) resulting in an unstable upbringing. In another case, it might be social isolation. In yet another, it might be an abnormal fixation with weapons or violence. At a certain point, the factors which ultimately led the shooter to act have some overlap.

You have to remembers, the shooters’ intentions are never haphazard. The attacks are designed to inflict mass casualties. Clarity in thought, intention, and tactical approach is an ever-present characteristic. This would tend to suggest significant forethought, and a level of planning developed over a period versus a spontaneous act.

HSToday: What are the main “signs” that a student maybe headed toward such an act? For what should people be on the lookout?

Bruce Alexander: One of the main signs is previous contact, i.e. behavioral/personal conduct, of a continuing nature with school authorities and even law enforcement. However, such contact is rarely of a superficial nature. It is usually in response to a serious incident, a communicated threat of violence towards someone or a repeated pattern.

The existence of social media, and cyber “tracks” pointing to the handling, use or role-play with weapons prominently displayed where the purpose of the weapon is clearly offensive, not defensive, graphic displays of wanton violence, statements professing hatred towards certain groups, admiration of known killers, particularly mass killers. Such indicators existed from Columbine to the events in Florida, and given that connectivity is much more prevalent than at the time of Columbine, cyber indicators are likely to remain as one of the more reliable indicators.

Shooters often also make statements indicating that violence is an acceptable behavior. Similarly to radicalization of an individual to terrorism, broader statements about violence as a means to resolve, or “pay back” people, or even nations, is a warning sign.

This is a tough one, but absent or disconnected parents are also an indicator. Lack of engagement, parents that ignore certain behaviors because it’s “just a phase” are also often present.

We have to be very careful not to label any one “sign” as a certain indicator or view the absence of a “sign” as evidence of the lack of a threat. Whatever signs might exist are as different as the shooters are in personalities. What constitutes a sign as a possible indicator for one potential shooter may not be a valid indicator for another. We all just need to pay attention and investigate these signs when they appear.

HSToday: What is your advice to school administrators? What do they need to be thinking about as these events seem to be happening with greater frequency?

Bruce Alexander: Unfortunately, schools are “ground zero” in these events. Creating effective solutions must be school-centered, but the solutions do not exist only in the schools.

These are a few of the things that administrators can do to lessen the chances of such an event:

  • Create an atmosphere where students, teachers, and school administrators can report concerns without fear. You WANT people to come forward if they hear, see, or experience a sign that worries them.
  • The issue doesn’t go away when the student does. Expelling a problematic student does not necessarily take care of the problem. If particularly threatening, or even if not, school administrators must remain vigilant of students with grievances.
  • Each event has the potential to fuel the next one, i.e. the copycat syndrome. The days, weeks and months following the previous school shooting require a high degree of alertness, awareness, and preparedness.

HSToday:  Any message or advice to Law Enforcement?

Bruce Alexander: Law enforcement alone can neither “solve” this nor prevent this. However, only law enforcement has the unique investigative personnel, tools, resources, and legal authority to identify, and respond to pre-incident indicators.

We have yet to find out the circumstances around why the FBI did not follow up with the tip on Cruz, but I think we all know that prevention will triumph over response. We as a society must work together to provide a social fabric that recognizes and prevents the shooter wherever possible.

Law enforcement can and should also utilize social media monitoring. Cyber-oriented investigations are critical to preventing the next attack.

Finally, police presence in the school is not sufficient. Active police engagement with the school community is required.

HSToday: Is it possible to have a school that is truly “safe” without metal detectors and other obtrusive deterrence efforts? 

Bruce Alexander: No facility, whether government or private, is “truly safe” regardless of the levels and types of “deterrence”. Safety is determined only by the price the attacker is willing to pay. Finally, deterrence efforts, whether obtrusive or not, cannot by themselves prevent, or respond.

HSToday: If you had all the leaders who could make a difference in a room, what do they need to know?

Bruce Alexander: Anyone who reduces these issues to a “gun control problem” or a “mental health problem” should not be part of any discussion, and subsequent efforts to address school or mass shootings.

They obviously do not understand the complexity of the issue.

Finding workable solutions to prevent and mitigate school shootings requires a multi-disciplinary approach void of political considerations. The stakeholders in this effort range from mental health professionals, parents, the judiciary, school systems, security professionals, etc., to leaders who will assume the responsibility to ensure there is sufficient funding available on a continual basis to take measures that can be taken. This can’t be left to funding that is dependent on budget cycle to budget cycle.

Finally, prepare yourselves for tomorrow because the next school shooter is already doing so.

______________


Bruce Alexander has over 30 years of law enforcement, intelligence, counter-terrorism and security experience in both the government and private sector. His expertise includes analysis of terrorist threats, tactics and operations, surveillance detection, suicide bombers, facility protection, Political Islam, and Executive Protection. He has operational experience in the Middle East and Africa, and is well versed in geopolitical issues related to terrorism.  
 
Bruce has held a variety of professional positions including: 
• Iraq Program Manager, Office of Antiterrorism Assistance, U.S. Department of State 
• Deputy Senior Advisor, Liberian Presidential Protection Program, U.S. Department of State 
• Director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Division, Office of Intelligence, U.S. Department of Energy
• Foreign Terrorism Analyst, Office of Intelligence, US Department of Energy
• Special Agent at the U.S. Department of Energy-Secretary of Energy Protective Detail • Major, U.S. Army, Military Police
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@GTSCoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.  
We welcome respectful comments and dialogue around these critical issues.  HSToday reserves the right to block, delete, ban any name-calling or disrespectful comments.
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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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