Mass school shootings have become so common in the United States that we are no longer surprised when news of yet another one flashes across our TV screen or social media feed. After a mass shooting, there are always intense yet similar debates about what motivated the shooter and how we can prevent future school shootings. An FBI report that looked at 63 mass shooters over many years found that although there are some attributes many shooters have in common, based on demographics alone, these attributes are not so uniform that shooters can be readily identified before attacking. The report says, “There is no single warning sign, checklist or algorithm for assessing behaviors that identify a prospective active shooter. Rather, there appears to be a complex combination of behaviors and interactions with bystanders that may often occur in the days, weeks and months leading up to an attack.” 

What this means is that human analysis and physical security, though important, are not enough to pinpoint deadly violence risks on high school, college and university campuses. The problem is simply too complex.

In order to predict and stop mass shootings in our schools, we need to be much more proactive than in the past and use the most effective technology we can develop. We need artificial intelligence systems to sift, sort and carefully select data, machine learning to improve results and only then depend on humans to verify the data and its context. Let’s take a look at the issue from all angles and discuss what we can do differently to drastically decrease school shootings.

What’s Considered a “Mass Shooting”?

There is no one definition of “mass shooting”. After Sandy Hook, Congress passed H.R. 2076 (112th), the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012. The act defined “mass killings” as three or more killings in a single incident in a place of public use. The purpose of the definition was to determine when the Attorney General can assist in an investigation at the request of state and local law enforcement officials. A wider definition of a mass shooting is promulgated by the Gun Violence Archive which defines it as an incident where at least four people are injured or killed aside from the suspect. Of course, all school shootings are not mass shootings.

How Often Are They Occurring?

Mass shootings are becoming more frequent and more deadly. In 2017 alone, there were 30 separate active mass shootings in the United States, the largest number ever recorded by the FBI during a one-year period. From 2000 to 2015, the number of incidents more than doubled from the first part of the period to the second.

According to a Washington Post analysis, more than 215,000 primary and secondary school students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine in 1999 until April 2018. From January 1, 2009 until May 21, 2018, there have been 288 school shootings, 57 times as many as in all other major, industrialized nations combined. Twenty-one weeks into 2018, there were already 23 school shootings from grades kindergarten through college and university level where someone was killed or hurt. That’s an average of one shooting per week. (Gang violence, fights and accidental discharge are included in these last school shooting parameters.)

Contributing Factors to Mass Shootings

Every time there is a school shooting, the discussion ranges from gun control to mental health, stressed-out teenagers and young adults, bullying, terrorism and even video games. Common comments are, “If only the other students had been nicer to the shooter. If only family, students and faculty had recognized the signs. If only those close to the shooter had listened.” There have been many discussions of traits displayed by school shooters that should help us recognize them. The problem is that before the fact, it is very difficult for humans to predict a school shooting even though a shooter may fit certain demographics and display certain traits.

Let’s look at what we know, and why the analyses we have been doing up to now is not enough to stop school shootings.

Gun Access
Shootings are more likely to occur where there is easy access to guns, and the access to guns in the United States is unparalleled. Americans make up about 4.4% of the global population but own 42% of the world’s guns. From 1966 to 2012, 31% of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were American. It’s unlikely that easy access to guns is likely to change any time in the near future, so schools must look beyond hopes for gun control to protect their students. The majority of shooters use legally obtained firearms, and 68% of shooters under the age of 18 get their guns from their parents’ houses or those of close relatives.

In 64% of mass shootings, the shooter specifically targets at least one of the victims. School shootings are unlikely to be caused by those driven by doctrine such as extreme Islam. However, violent tendencies and misogyny play a role. Often school shooters target girls who would not date them or who rejected them. Elliott Rodger, who killed six people in 2014 at UC Santa Barbara, uploaded a YouTube video saying he was going to punish women who rejected him. Other examples of shooters out to kill women include the Santa Fe high school mass shooting in May 2018 that left 10 dead and the 2015 Oregon college shooting that also left 10 dead. These are just a few examples; misogyny is a common thread that runs through many school shootings.

Violent History
Many shooters have a history of violence including domestic violence. In fact, a study by Everytown for Gun Safety has found that the majority of mass shootings in the United States are related to domestic or family violence.

Mental Illness
There is always a lot of discussion about mental illness after a school attack, perhaps because it is hard to imagine anyone in their right mind doing such a thing. The FBI report could only verify that 25% of active shooters in the study had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness, and of the 63 shooters studied only three had been diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. Even if a student is mentally ill, it is not difficult for them to gain access to a firearm. As we have seen, many students use the guns of parents or relatives. Also, a regulation put into place during the Obama administration to make it more difficult for the mentally ill to acquire firearms was nullified during the Trump administration.

The biggest danger for school shootings comes from students with interpersonal issues. Extremism rarely plans a role with the exception of misogyny.

Most shooters target familiar places, usually their schools in the case of students.

According to the FBI study sample (mentioned above), 63% of mass shooters are white. This is followed by shooters who are 16% black, 10% Asian, 6% Hispanic, 3% Middle Eastern and 2% Native American.

According to the FBI study sample, 94% of mass shooters are male.

Suspicious Behavior and Leaked Information
Shooters in the FBI study usually exhibited four or five observable “concerning behaviors” before the attack. In every case, at least one of these concerning behaviors was noticed by someone who knew the shooter. These included behaviors related to mental health, interpersonal problems and communication of violent intent. Almost all teen shooters and half of adult shooters tell someone about their plan before they do it. You would think, therefore, that more of them could have been stopped. In incidents where the shooter was a student, 92% of the time the person who noticed the behavior was a schoolmate. Unfortunately, those who observe the behaviors typically do not communicate with anyone in authority. The most common response is to mention the behavior to the shooter himself or to do nothing. Therefore, in many instances, the information is not shared beyond the shooter and his confidante.

Mass shootings are not just spur of the moment. Shooters take time to plan. 77% spend a week or more in preparation, 46% spend longer than a week and only 12% spend less than a day planning.

In the year before they act, most active shooters experience multiple stressors, 3.6 on average. But most of us experience stress in our lives, and the high school and college years are difficult for many. This alone is unlikely to tell us much.

What’s Next for Predicting Mass Shootings?

Experts have looked at many additional factors in school shootings than those described above, but there is just no dependable way to predict mass shootings by human analysis alone. Most teenagers and young adults have relatively easy access to guns, and that is not likely to change soon in our society. We could look more closely at white young men with some stress in their lives who have been rejected by women or can’t get dates, but that is a uselessly big pool of people, and that profile does not fit all shooters. Though most teenage and half of adult shooters leak information about their violent plans, that information is unlikely to be reported to authorities. Schools cannot wait for law enforcement alone to find an answer to keep their students safe. It is up to schools themselves to be proactive in protecting their students from violence and mass shooting risks by using the most effective security measures available.

Efforts to Improve School Safety and Increase Access to Mental Health Services

Though mental health issues are usually not the cause of school shootings, they do figure into some cases. The National Association of Elementary School Principals, the American School Counseling Association, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of School Resource Officers, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and School Social Work Association of America have jointly released their recommendations for improving school safety and access to mental health services for students in “A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools,” Recommendations include improving funding streams for student mental health services, improving staffing ratios, developing standards for school discipline and promoting positive behavior, funding emergency preparedness and improving intra-agency and interagency collaborations.

Many schools are providing training to try to increase their efforts to recognize erratic student behaviors that could possibly signal upcoming violent events. They are also trying to increase student access to mental health services without the stigma that is often attached to using such services. These are all important and worthwhile efforts, but even if they are successful, they will only influence outcomes in a minority of potential mass shooting cases.

Is Increased Physical Security a Viable Answer?

The first impulse of school officials following news of a school shooting is often to increase physical security. In 1994, about 13% of schools employed uniformed officers and that leapt to 51% by 2014. Other measures include increasing perimeter and access control, though these measures are unlikely to be enough to protect against homemade explosives and vehicular attacks. Certainly, physical security is important, but it is not enough to keep students safe. Armed police were present during the Columbine and Virginia Tech school shootings, which were two of the deadliest. An armed school resource officer was present at Columbine and five officers and the police chief were on campus at Virginia Tech. Furthermore, the shooters knew there were armed officers on campus and remained undeterred.

In 1994, about 13% of schools employed uniformed officers and that leapt to 51% by 2014.

Some schools turn to access security where students have ID badges, visitors sign in and doors are locked. The problem with these measures is that a school shooter is likely to be a student who would have complete access to the school.

Metal detectors appear to be somewhat effective for those schools that have them, though they have not been extensively studied. For example, a 2000 Chicago study found that metal detectors prevented 294 weapons including 15 guns from entering schools. But metal detectors are far from infallible. In Red Lake Minnesota in 2005 a teenager killed an unarmed security guard, went through a metal detector and killed five students and a teacher.

Technology’s Role in Predictive Analysis and Security

Physical security measures and training staff to recognize problem students have proven to be insufficient. In order to prevent future mass shootings or at least minimize the risk, schools must implement technologybased predictive security solutions that foretell mass shooting s and other violent acts. Timing is everything, and it is critical for schools to obtain information in time to prevent attacks. In order to predict attacks, artificial intelligence can be used to intelligently sort information from all corners of the Internet almost in real time and monitor trillions of data points. Better yet, machine learning can make data become increasingly relevant over time. Human analysis is also involved after an artificial intelligence system delivers the data to determine the seriousness and context of the risk. These tools enable a huge leap forward in predictive analysis capabilities that proactively identify suspicious activity and the people who are planning violent attacks. Let’s look at some of the methods.

Tools That Remove the Barriers from Reporting Suspicious Behavior

Sixty percent of terror plots are discovered through human reporting, so it’s critical to make it as easy as possible for people to report suspicious activity. We have seen that most shooters exhibit concerning behaviors before they carry out their plans. We have also seen that although virtually all shooters under 18 and half of adult shooters leak information prior to mass killings, most people who get such information do not report it. They may not want quite know what to do, don’t take it seriously or don’t want to get involved. Technology can remove many of the barriers to reporting through an app that enables students, faculty and school staff to report suspicious behavior or leaked information in real time. It’s easy and it’s fast, and it puts a tool into the hands of those who are most likely to hear or see something amiss. Reports can be automatically pushed to key law enforcement or security personnel at a school’s geo-fenced facility to enable immediate action.

Using Data to Identify Patterns in Web Activity

To effectively predict threats, it is necessary to identify behavior patterns using large amounts of data. We must use both external data and an Internet-based system to sense risk and identify actors who exhibit patterns of online activity that may indicate threats. Risk is assessed by analyzing people’s use of content across three categories: means, motivation and target.Means
“Means” includes types of weapons or materials that might be used to carry out a crime. Examples of “means” includes information about firearms, homemade explosive devices or cyber security. Motivation
“Motivation” is most likely to be personally driven rather than due to extremism or politics in the case of schools, though that may not always be the case. Motivation content may be about things such as violence, religious extremism, active shooter incidents or even general news. Target

“Target” can be a place such as a school or an event location and can also involve a person the shooter is focusing on.

If a student is just researching firearms, it may mean nothing. But if they are researching assault weapons, violent content and previous school shooter incidents, it is more cause for concern, because a pattern begins to emerge.

Cross-Referencing Global Terrorist Networks

The biggest threat in schools is student shooters. However, at a college or university level in particular, it is possible for a school to be a target of extremists, possibly even extremists who are students, faculty or staff. Artificial intelligence technology exists that can determine how close an individual is to terrorists and how likely they are to become terrorists themselves. This is done through a database of online content related to global terrorist networks and deep web mining techniques.

Enabling Anti-terrorism Technology to Protect Against Liability

Despite a school’s best efforts, it is possible for a mass shooting or other act of terrorism to occur. Schools officials should be aware that if a terrorist act occurs at the school and they have tried to protect their students by using “qualified anti-terrorism technology,” then the school is immune from a federal lawsuit under the Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies Act.

Keeping Students Safe with Predictive Security

In today’s complex world, physical security alone is not enough to keep students safe. Fortunately, the Internet offers us opportunities to use artificial intelligence and machine learning get a step ahead of would-be school shooters. This involves heavy lifting of huge volumes of data so it can be presented almost immediately in a format that enables fast decision-making. Predictive security helps to foretell tragedies while they are still in the planning stages and keep students safe by accessing, sorting and analyzing the right information at the right time.