Every year across the nation, acts of violence are prevented on school and college campuses by students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, school resource officers, campus police and security officers. What have we learned from these averted acts of school violence, and how can those lessons help other schools protect our children and their staff?
The Police Foundation — a national non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to improving policing through innovation and science — has initiated a project, with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the National Institute of Justice, to study “averted acts of school violence.”
The project is based on the concept of a “near miss,” which has been used to inform the business practices in the aviation, fire and medical professions. The near miss concept holds that for every incident that occurs, there are significantly more averted incidents. These averted incidents contain invaluable information regarding the strengths or potential weaknesses of current policies, procedures, training and methods.
The Police Foundation has built a national database to record incidents of averted and/or completed acts of school violence (ASV). The national database collects and analyzes data regarding averted incidents to identify best, and more importantly, “next” practices to prevent and respond to acts of violence in our schools and on our college campuses.
Definition of Averted School Violence
The Police Foundation defines an averted school violence incident as a violent attack planned with or without the use of a firearm that was prevented either before or after the potential perpetrator arrived on school grounds and before any injury or loss of life occurred. The Police Foundation collects incidents that occurred in the United States after the Columbine tragedy in 1999.
Lessons Learned from 51 Averted Attacks
So far, Police Foundation subject matter experts have reviewed approximately 51 incident reports that have been entered into the averted school violence database. These averted incidents were identified primarily from open source news stories and court documents, however, there has also been an increase in the number of incidents reported by individuals who are aware of averted incidents.
The Police Foundation also develops incident reports on completed acts of school violence and is currently working with subject matter experts to review these reports and provide lessons learned before entry into the database. The Police Foundation has conducted preliminary analysis on the 51 averted school violence incident reports.
To date, the team has identified the following lessons learned:
- Schools and law enforcement must have a strong, pre-established relationship and open lines of communication before an attack occurs.
- Students who hear threats of violence from other students should take them seriously and report them to school or other authorities immediately. Based on our preliminary study, in over half of the open source incidents we studied, students were the first to discover another student’s plans for school violence. (See figure 1 below)
Figure 1: A student peer initially discovered the attack plan in 29 incidents.
- Students should be trained not only to recognize threats of violence but also to recognize signs of suicide or depression.
- Parents should monitor their child’s social media accounts and remain aware of their general Internet use for any concerning searches or violent material.
- Potential perpetrators of violence frequently make direct threats or openly discuss their violent plans with others. In some instances, they use social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and even Snapchat to share violent plans or thoughts, or to express disdain for a school/situation. (See figure 2 below)
Figure 2: School violence plot was discovered in 17 incidents when the perpetrator directly told somebody about their violent plans/threats and in 10 incidents when they mentioned their violent plans on social media.
- Parents should take their children’s threats of violence seriously and seek assistance from law enforcement, mental health professionals and other service providers.
- Parents should keep all guns in a locked and secure location if they are in the home.
- School personnel, school resource officers, campus police and security officers should strive to develop and maintain rapport with students so they are aware of students who are bullied, feel excluded, depressed or challenged in other ways so they can connect them to services.
- Schools must continuously update and practice their emergency communication systems and response plans.
- Schools should have a plan in place for timely communication of incidents to parents.
- Schools, particularly universities and higher education campus, should be aware that financial distress can be a trigger for violence.
- Schools should notify all staff when a student is suspended or expelled. That student should not be allowed back on campus the same day of the suspension or expulsion.
- Schools should direct concerns through a “safety team” for review and to design an appropriate course of action.
- Schools must be vigilant at entrance locations and have sufficient staff to process and observe individuals entering the school.
The Benefits of Submitting and Viewing ASV Reports
By submitting and reviewing ASV reports to the Police Foundation, you can improve school safety in your district or on your college campus as well as help other school safety professionals across the country to improve safety. The database has a number of specific benefits both to the report submitters and to the individuals who review the report library.
- Averted and carried out school attacks can provide insights into the effectiveness of existing school and campus safety efforts nationwide.
- The ASV incident report library contains valuable information related to school security, averted attackers, successful discovery and prevention of attacks, lessons learned and recommendations.
- ASV incident reports can help prevent future violence when lessons are learned and recommendations inform the policies, procedures, practices and training of those who are engaged in school and campus safety.
- ASV reporting is anonymous, and submitted reports are additionally scrubbed to remove any identifying information about the school, perpetrator or report submitter.
The ASV Reporting Process
The online incident report form is broken into various categories. The main categories contain questions related to basic school information and security, information about the averted or carried out attack, information about the perpetrator or potential perpetrator, and a section to identify lessons learned from how the incident was handled.
While we encourage report submitters to answer as many questions as possible to allow for the most robust data collection and analysis, all questions in the form are optional.
If report submitters do not feel comfortable providing incident data, we still encourage them to complete the lessons learned and recommendations section. These recommendations and lessons learned can still play an important role in helping other schools prevent acts of violence.
Lessons learned and recommendations can cover any aspect of the attack or averted attack — from physical school safety mechanisms, to safety drills and procedures, to the level of communication that played a role as the incident was addressed or prevented.
As previously mentioned, the report form can be filled out anonymously. We suggest providing basic contact information if the submitter is unable to complete the form in one sitting and wants to be able to return to the same question form.
Once a form is submitted, school safety subject matter experts remove identifying information as necessary and provide additional lessons learned and/or recommendations.
Subject matter experts have backgrounds in counseling psychology, campus security and law enforcement, risk management and threat assessments. Experts have conducted extensive research on averted and completed attacks.
During the review process, the report form is NOT available on the ASV online platform. The Police Foundation will publish the report in the report library at www.asvnearmiss.org only after review by subject matter experts and the removal of identifying information.
The online report library is not open to the public, and those that request access are vetted by the Police Foundation before access is granted. Reports are searchable and categorized by fields such as type of school, means of plot discovery, types of weapons acquired by the perpetrator, date of the attack or planned attack, and more.
We Want to Hear About Your Near Misses
The Averted School Violence database holds great promise in informing school and college campus safety policies, procedures, training and practices through a robust library of incidents, lessons learned and best practices.
By carefully analyzing the incidents recorded in the database and the lessons learned, school resource officers, campus police and security officers, administrators, teachers, law enforcement and others can strengthen current programs and identify next practices to ensure the safety and security of our schools and college campuses.
If you have been involved in an averted act of violence, we encourage you to complete an incident report form at www.asvnearmiss.org to help grow the lessons learned to benefit you, your department, or school. The website is mobile friendly.
For more information on the Averted School Violence project, contact Sarah Solano, [email protected], 202-833-1469.
Sarah Solano is a project assistant for the Police Foundation and Frank Straub, Ph.D. is director of strategic studies for the Police Foundation, www.policefoundation.org. John Rosiak is the founder of Prevention Partnerships, www.rosiakassociates.com.
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