This is great documentary about school violence that PBS produced titled, “After Newtown – The Path To Violence.” It talks about an aspect of school violence that the national media often doesn’t bring up – not every attack that is planned is successful. The investigation that PBS’s team conducted highlighted a major point that is worth discussing – school shootings don’t just happen, they are often planned out, anywhere from two to three weeks to two years. From the perspective of identifying and stopping these attacks, the fact that there is a planning phase is a good thing. The longer a student plans an attack, the more pre-event indicators they will leave behind for people to pick up on and help to assist in the early detection of those with intentions to harm others.
Pattern recognition improves as people find comparisons between situations, making it worth noting the similarities between the way a student plans out an attack and the way a terrorist prepares for an operation. Before the event can occur, there are some steps that any potential attacker has to go through once they have made the decision to harm others and decided where they want to conduct the assault. He needs to conduct initial surveillance on that target, understand the ways into and out of the building, the anticipated security presence on scene, acquire the materials, conduct a rehearsal, plan for the attack’s exploitation, identify patterns in the emergency response, and countless other factors that might affect the success or failure of his attack.
It is in this planning framework where a person can become recognized as an anomaly. A person conducting surveillance might be showing signs of situational awareness, unfamiliarity, or interest in people or objects that are above the baseline. The attacker might show signs from the uncomfortable cluster if they are worried about getting caught conducting surveillance or questioned while casing the area. This planning phase provides the opportunity for early detection. It is why quantifying a baseline is so important; a teacher, principal or security officer needs the ability to confidently determine that a student’s behavior doesn’t fit the baseline. These cues won’t be a huge flashing light that alerts a teacher to someone conducting surveillance and it could be very subtle. That subtlety is what often causes people to doubt themselves or question what they think they observed.
As the documentary quotes, “There is the difference between having a perceived increase in school security, and having a real increase in the security in your schools.” Focusing solely on putting up more bulletproof glass on locking the doors provides the perception of increased safety, but it does not guarantee that everyone inside is actually safer. Being able to proactively search the area and determine who stands out is the only way to create a true increase in the security of our schools.
Whether schools should have an armed officer or not is a decision that is unique to each individual school. The one thing that isn’t a factor is the training needed for educators, school staff and bus drivers to recognize when someone has made the decision to commit to violence. Training can ensure that teachers don’t question their observation and feel confident taking action to stop a potential attack.
Some of the issues that the documentary raises, such as the connections between mental health and a propensity to violence, access to guns, etc. are issues that need to be decided by our society as a whole and are going to take time. By training to read behavior that will be observable once a person has committed to violence and is going through the planning process is the way that we can ensure our safety while we prepare for long-term solutions.