Since 2011, the rate of mass shootings has more than tripled in the United States and schools have frequently been the target. While added physical security measures are a step towards preventing these attacks from happening on campuses, there is more we can do. Identifying a school shooter before their plans turn into action is the best method of prevention.

The FBI has found that for shooters under the age of 18, peers and teachers were more likely to observe concerning behavior than family members. To get more people to report concerning behavior, we have to know what to look out for. Here is what we know about school shooters from the data.

They Experience High Levels of Stress

A common characteristic found in high risk individuals was the failure to navigate major stressors in their lives. One of the top ranked stressors was mental health (not mental illness) in 62 percent of those analyzed.

When it comes to providing students with resources for their mental health, most schools are underfunded. Of those analyzed, only 53 percent of schools reported they provided training on referral strategies for students with signs of mental health disorders. This presents a great area for improvement and could prove to be more effective than physical security measures.

There are other stressors that can be an identified as well. Some of these included “conflict at school”, which was present in 22 percent of incidents, and conflict with friends or peers which was present in 29 percent of shooters.

They Display Concerning Behavior

Most schools fail to observe concerning behaviors or develop intervention strategies if noticed.

First Instance of Concerning Behavior

Figure 9: James Silver, Andre Simons, and Sarah Craun, “A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in The United States Between 2000 and 2013.

According to the most recent U.S. Department of Education’s Indicators of School Crime and Safety study, only 48 percent of schools reported providing training on the early warning signs of violent student behaviorYet teachers still observed concerning behavior 75 percent of the time. Sadly, however, 83 percent of the time the behavior was only communicated to the shooter, or nothing was done (54 percent).

These facts bring up many more questions than answers. How risk adverse should administrators be when reporting concerning behavior? How do you report behavior without creating further grievances?  Regardless of your unique approach for your institution and community, the time to be aware, alert, and prepared to act is before an attack not just during and after. 

They Plan Ahead 

The FBI’s study found that 77 percent of shooters will take a week or longer to plan their attack, and 46 percent spend a week or longer preparing. These activities can produce common identifiable behaviors and help raise the red flag.

Time Spent Planning

Figure 6: James Silver, Andre Simons, and Sarah Craun, “A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in The United States Between 2000 and 2013.

They Leak Information

An information leak by the potential shooter is another commonly observed behavior. In fact, it was found that they leaked their intentions about 56 percent of the time.

A good majority of these information leaks take place in a student or employee’s digital lives. These online leaks often go unnoticed or unheard by those who could potentially intervene. This brings to light the importance of taking what individuals say, even if online, seriously.

They Target Familiar Places

A known connection to the location of the attack is another factor that comes into play. In 73 percent of cases the shooter had a known connection to the location of attack. Almost all perpetrators under 18 (88 percent) targeted a school or a former school.

Venn diagram of relationship between random and targeted victims

Figure 6: James Silver, Andre Simons, and Sarah Craun, “A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in The United States Between 2000 and 2013.

Looking into this further, in 64 percent of cases, at least one victim was specifically targeted by the shooter. In cases where a primary grievance could be identified, the most common was adverse interpersonal action against the shooter. This means that shooters commonly target individuals they have grievances with: students, teachers, or administors.

With the use of predictive analytics, the potential to identify these patterns is more advanced than ever. School shootings and school security have been under-researched for decades. Lumina has been building and perfecting these exact technological tools to help keep schools safe.