After Columbine, the United States Secret Service wondered whether its unique expertise could help prevent assaults on our schools. It assigned the team that usually analyzes threats against the president to analyze the young men who come to class to kill. Now they believe they have an approach powerful enough to stop a massacre. Scott Pelley reports.
Arthur Kelly is police chief in New Bedford, Mass., a small city where an attack on the high school was the last thing the cops were looking for. But in November, five teen-agers were charged in an alleged plot to detonate bombs in the school and shoot the students who ran outside. One of kids allegedly bragged they were going to "Out Columbine, Columbine."
How did New Bedford uncover the plot before it was too late? Kelly says it was because they were one of the first cities to get an early look at the Secret Service's draft report "Threat Assessment in Schools." One of the key findings was that school shooters almost always tell others what they are planning. Kelly's officers in the school were trained to listen and take threats, no matter how incredible, seriously.
In New Bedford, Kelly says, more than one student heard something and told what they knew.
A janitor found a note about the plot and relayed the information. "It's communication, being aware," Kelly says.
The strategy that may have saved New Bedford High is in a two-year study that will soon be available to every school.
It says most school shooters follow the same path. They're motivated by revenge. They feel isolated from the adults in their lives. Most think about suicide. Their planning is also similar and predictable. They plot for months, almost never make a direct threat against the target. But, as in New Bedford, they almost always tell someone about the attack in advance.
The Secret Service team learned all this by going to the source. They studied 37 cases and went to the prisons to interview many of the school shooters themselves. Among those they talked to was Luke Woodham, who in 1997 killed his mother and then two students at Pearl High School in Mississippi.
The Secret Service interviews are the heart of a seminar being developed by the Service and the Department of Education to train teachers and cops. This is the first look at the program that Secret Service director Brian Stafford says can stop an attack before it starts.
"We can use some of the same Secret Service methods that we use to protect the president, to protect our children from these violent shootings," he says.
The research was written by five Secret Service consultants: Robert Fein and Bryan Vossekuil, psychologists Bill Pollack and Randy Borum, and Marisa Reddy.
Says Reddy: "What we found was that there is no accurate or useful profile of a school shooter. These kids ran the gamut of demographic and descriptive and background characteristics. Some were as young as 11, some were as old as 21. Some had been doing incredibly well in school, had been on the honor roll, some had not been doing well."
"There were a number of themes," says Fein. "These kids did not just suddenly snap. The targeted violence was the end result of a process of thinking, of planning; in many cases, communication with others."
Borum says the study found that the kids who did the shootings were not mentally ill. "That's not the findings from our study. For someone to be psychotic, it would suggest that they lost touch with reality, hearing voices, experiencing false fixed beliefs like delusions. Those didn't appear to be common symptoms in the boys and young men in this study."
But there were common motivations. Most shooters were overwhelmed by feelings of failure and depression—feelings provoked by other kids in school.
"Bullying and teasing is a national scourge across America, and it happens in schools every day," says Pollack. Over 100,000 kids each day won't go to school, because they're afraid of being bullied. And boys talk about the fact that their lives have been made so miserable they'd rather be dead.
And in what may be the biggest surprise in the study, the team found that the planning for the attacks is rarely a secret. Just like at Columbine, most attackers told other students something about what they were planning, and wrote about their rage.
Barry Spodak and David Swink are psychotherapists who normally teach Secret Service agents how to interview potential assassins. They are also involved in seminars to help schools spot potential shooters. Spodak plays the role of an adult in the school trying to figure out whether a student is just angry or truly dangerous. An actor plays the role of "Jeff," an angry student. Jeff is an angry teen-ager, is all the school shooters wrapped into one. He's part of that seminar for teachers. He's an actor who's been trained with everything they've learned in the school shooter study.
Over the summer, they will run seminars all over the country to show teachers how to spot the signs that a kid poses a true threat. Rod Paige, the Secretary of Education, intends to put the Secret Service study on the department's Web site and sent a guidebook on the research to every school in the country.
"There have been a lot of studies but none like this. This is going to be of enormous help to us," Paige says.
"Safety is our first concern, safety above all else. We've got to create a safe environment in order for students to learn and for teachers to teach," he says. One key, he says, is that parents must be involved.
The seminar and guidebook will tell teachers about the common warning signs that suggest a student is on a path to violence. Most had trouble dealing with a recent personal failure. Most considered suicide. And in one of the most striking findings, virtually every school shooter studied said he did not have a single trusting relationship with an adult.
Dennis McCarthy is looking for those isolated kids in the Blue Valley schools outside Kansas City. He's the head of security. He also got an advance look at the Secret Service research because he was once a Secret Service agent.
Says McCarthy: "In my career in the Secret Service, there's no doubt in my mind the hundreds of people I interviewed. I know in my heart I stopped violent acts. In this job, in the last semester, there were over 50 incidents that I was called into by building administrators to investigate." He says four or five "could've become very violent."
McCarthy is already following the research—making sure every kid has an adult they can talk to.
In New Bedford, Kelly says the Secret Service study helped the teachers, administration and police change their whole approach to school security.
He says it is not easy to implement. "The study pointed out that you needed to do your homework. For the police to be effective, they had to work on the prevention side, the intervention side, before the violence occurred, and that's what the report got us ready to do."
Reddy says that at the New Bedford school, "the principal and his staff… took a lot of time to create an environment where kids felt comfortable sharing information and concerns with adults."
Says Pollack: "There is no secret to being a good, connected teacher. Everyone knows what it is. It's listening and knowing what your students feel. If you know what your students feel, there won't be school shootings, and there won't be boys and girls of desperation. It isn't rocket science. It's connection, connection, connection."