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School Violence: Lessons Learned.

In Pearl, Mississippi, a 16-year-old boy allegedly killed his mother, then went to his high school and shot 9 students, 2 fatally. Three students were killed and 5 others were wounded in a high school in West Paducah, Kentucky; a 14-year-old student pleaded guilty. During a false fire alarm at a middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, 4 girls and a teacher were shot to death and 10 individuals were wounded when 2 boys, 11 and 13 years old, allegedly opened fire from the woods. A science teacher was shot to death in front of students at an 8th-grade dance in Edinboro, Pennsylvania; a 14-year-old awaits trial. Two teenagers were killed and more than 20 individuals were hurt when a 15-year-old boy allegedly opened fire at a high school in Springfield, Oregon. The deadliest incident of school violence recently occurred at a high school in Littleton, Colorado, when 2 young male students went on a killing spree and then committed suicide.(1)

These and other incidents of school violence have shocked Americans and created an atmosphere of fear and disbelief in many U.S. communities. How can youngsters commit such vicious attacks? Why are they occurring? What can be done to stop them? As the first responders to these tragic incidents, the law enforcement agencies directly involved face many difficult challenges and previously unthinkable situations. What lessons can the law enforcement community learn from these wanton acts of violence?(2)

First and foremost, all aspects of a community need to work together. School violence is not the sole responsibility of the school system. Law enforcement, local government, civic groups, corporate entities, schools, and parents must form a partnership to combat these violent acts. Schools must prepare for these attacks. Law enforcement must develop response plans for handling such incidents. And, communities must work with both to prevent such tragedies from occurring.


Memorandums of Understanding

Representatives from law enforcement, the schools, and the community should come together to sign memorandums of understanding (MOUs) that clearly define what each organization or agency will do from the beginning of the crisis to the end. MOUs should state what resources each participant will provide and identify the command structure (i.e., who will take charge and who will act as support). Also, MOUs should require ongoing liaison among all of the participants to enhance communication and maintain readiness.

Most important, MOUs should assign specific tasks - such as processing the crime scene, conducting interviews, coordinating media coverage, administering victim/witness services, and handling other support systems - and encourage agencies to appoint the best employees to those tasks. Then, the participants should train together so that each individual involved will know exactly what to do and who is in charge. During a crisis, no time exists to address these issues.

MOUs and Law Enforcement

Because some of these tragic events have required officers to secure large areas for crime scene processing, MOUs should ensure that law enforcement agencies consider the need for adequate human resources and technical support. For example, in some of the school shootings, officers had to interview up to 300 eyewitnesses immediately. Additionally, a considerable amount of computer support became necessary. Such major investigations often result in large databases that require the on-scene capability of data entry and management. Finally, MOUs should specify that all investigators receive annual training in how to handle juvenile criminals, especially young mass or spree murderers.

MOUs and Schools

Before any planning or training can occur, a good working relationship must exist between schools and police. To this end, school districts should establish a crisis response team made up of decision makers who can develop preincident plans and sign MOUs. The team should include the leadership of the school, such as the chief of the school's security force, as well as facilities engineers and architects, medical personnel, and legal representatives, if such exist. The school's media spokesperson also should participate.

Once they have developed preincident plans, schools must train with the other participants to learn their roles in crisis situations, including evacuation, and to understand the importance of their contributions, especially to the law enforcement agencies involved. Moreover, the police should educate teachers and school officials about problems in their communities that could influence students, such as gangs, drugs, and violence.

MOUs and the Media

MOUs must state clearly who will handle the media. This proves paramount because, in some instances, the media may arrive at the scene before the police. MOUs should state who will issue press releases and how often that will occur. Personnel assigned to handle the media must provide written, accurate updates to the press. These individuals also must know who is responsible for investigating rumors. Because rumors constitute a major problem in a crisis, quickly dispelling as many as possible should become a priority for investigators. MOUs also should encourage law enforcement and schools to include media representatives in the preincident planning and training process.

Critical Incident Response

Once law enforcement agencies have created partnerships with their schools and communities and have MOUs in place, they must develop a critical incident response plan. To effectively manage an incident of school violence, agencies should initiate a formal plan that clearly defines logistical considerations, communication needs, and victim/witness processing requirements.

Logistical Considerations

Agencies should create an emergency response crime scene team comprised of experienced investigators. They should designate a remote command post, away from the media and the crime scene. For press conferences, they should select a facility, such as a National Guard armory, away from the command post and the crime scene to keep both of these locations secure from the media and onlookers.

Communication Needs

Agencies should prearrange mobile radio communications for their officers and dedicate a telephone line that they can publicize to help gather information. Agencies also should train and assign to any incident of school violence full-time media or public information officers.

Initially, agencies should hold periodic briefings at prearranged times for the major participants of the investigation. As the investigation progresses, they should hold briefings as necessary. To combat rumors, agencies should establish a control center and assign officers to investigate rumors and dispel them as quickly as possible.

Victim/Witness Processing Requirements

Agencies should designate a large facility to accommodate victim/witness services. During a crisis, agencies should ensure that the facility remains secure from the media and onlookers. However, at the same time, they must publicize its existence so victims and witnesses will know where to go for help. The facility should have contact information for various victim/witness resources, such as the National Organization for Victim Assistance(3) and other local or outside sources, that agency personnel may access quickly.


Law enforcement agencies must remember that their officers have the same concerns as other parents when it comes to their children's safety. Before assigning them duties, commanders should allow officers to talk to their spouses and ensure that their children are safe.

Agencies must plan beyond the incident, ensuring the availability of follow-up counseling for personnel and their families, as well as others in the community. Agencies should make employee assistance and mental health professionals available for critical incident defusing and debriefing of law enforcement and other emergency response personnel as quickly as possible. Moreover, service providers themselves may need help in order to assist others. For example, in each of the six school shootings the FBI studied, the National Organization for Victim Assistance's Crisis Response Team arrived within 24 hours of the incident. All of the jurisdictions praised the team for helping the local emergency responders help others in their communities.


Law enforcement agencies, schools, and communities can employ preventive measures that may help identify potential at-risk students and defuse violent confrontations. Anonymous reporting programs, school resource officers, zero-tolerance policies, educational programs, effective liaison, and legislative and social reforms constitute some of the ways communities can safeguard their children.

Implement Anonymous Reporting Programs

In all but one of the six school shootings, the suspects "leaked" their intentions to other students, but the police did not receive this information. At the time of the shootings, none of these schools had a Scholastic Crime Stoppers Program or an anonymous tip line or comment box in place. A tip line or similar program would facilitate the flow of anonymous information from the students to the police and would constitute a definitive preventive effort. To ensure effectiveness, school officials should monitor this tip line or comment box 24 hours a day or at least access it before the school day begins. A good working relationship must exist between school authorities and the police to ensure that the police receive the information in a timely way. If the targeted schools had had an anonymous tip program, the police probably could have caught several of the shooters as they entered their schools.

Employ School Resource Officers

In conjunction with a tip program, schools should consider school resource officers (i.e., officers permanently assigned to the school by the police department). These officers can provide positive information quickly, weed out rumors, and develop intelligence regarding potential or planned acts of violence. Besides school resource officers and other officers with school duties, patrol officers should adopt schools in their assigned areas and, whenever possible, have lunch at the school. This gives students an opportunity to develop trust and to talk to police officers in a neutral, nonthreatening atmosphere.

Develop a Zero-Tolerance Policy

Schools should establish a zero-tolerance policy for students who make threats. Such a policy might include expulsion or suspension of students who threaten to kill or assault others and, if appropriate, quickly provide psychological evaluation or intervention for these students. When adults take threats seriously, students will realize that violence is not a condoned resolution to conflict.

Educate Teachers and Parents

The police should train teachers, school counselors, and parents to recognize students at risk of committing violence. While society can prevent or minimize violence, it rarely, if ever, can predict it because of the numerous human variables involved. Therefore, teachers and parents must look for "leakage" in student behavior that may signal the potential for violence. One behavior leakage that was present in all but one of the shootings involved the stated or implied desire to commit a violent act or suicide.

Other general warning signs or personal background indicators include:

* a history of violence:

* a close family member who has committed a violent act;

* a history of alcohol or drug abuse;

* a precipitating event, such as a failed romance or the perception of a failed romance, which was the case in several of the school shootings;

* the availability of a weapon or the means to commit violence;

* a recent attempt to commit suicide or an act of violence, as was the case in several of the school shootings;

* a lack of coping skills or strategies to handle personal life crises with no controls to prevent anger or positive ways to release it; and

* no apparent emotional support system.

When teachers, school counselors, or parents see a problem, they should notify school security personnel and the police. Police should meet with parents and teachers to encourage them to seek counseling for youths who exhibit symptoms indicating a need for intervention. However, because many incidents and changes in life can cause changes in student behavior, it becomes difficult to know what is normal student behavior and what constitutes grounds for concern and possible intervention.

One method for discovering potentially violent students involves having students write about their lives as a window into their thoughts. This would have helped in some of the school shootings if the teachers had had the essays and then been able to interpret their content and style. For example, one of the shooters' work was influenced heavily by the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who is best known for having proclaimed the death of God and for calling himself an "immoralist," one who opposes all morality.(4) Another suspect's writing was inspired by the musician Marilyn Manson who reportedly based his song "Antichrist Superstar" on Nietzsche's book The Antichrist, a critique of Pauline Christianity.(5) While these influences and writing styles may not uncover a potential school shooter, they do represent signs that educators and parents should take seriously and explore further.

Maintain Communication

No easy solutions exist for curbing violent behavior. No one group can accept the blame for the increasingly violent actions of students. For example, research has shown that violence depicted in the media has a small impact on a large number of children and a large impact on a small number of children.(6) Therefore, as a way of identifying the small number of children greatly impacted by violence in the media, uniformed officers should visit schools as often as possible to establish rapport with students, teachers, and staff. Liaison, trust, training, and intelligence must exist for prevention programs to succeed.

Moreover, communities must send positive messages to all of their children that they are valuable and important to the community. Parents and other concerned adults must find ways to sincerely praise children, positively recognize their contributions to the community, and actively show children that they are loved and respected. At the same time, communities should encourage zero tolerance for violence whether committed by children or adults.

Explore Legislative and Social Reforms

Law enforcement, schools, and parents can do only so much to prevent school violence. Society must begin to explore ways to combat these vicious attacks. Such initiatives could include legislation that

* provides for mandatory custody to evaluate any juvenile found in the possession of a firearm or other deadly weapon;

* requires school officials to report to the police any criminal offenses committed at their schools and to furnish blueprints of their facilities to local law enforcement authorities;

* enables law enforcement, schools, juvenile authorities, and other criminal justice agencies to share information for the purpose of criminal investigations or identifying children who may pose a danger to themselves and others; and

* allows courts to try as adults juveniles who commit homicide.(7)

Besides supporting legislative action, communities should develop programs that denounce violence and encourage respect for life and education, along with initiatives that increase individual and parental responsibility and accountability. Communities also should advocate mental health services for individuals who need it, meaningful sanctions for those who demonstrate an unwillingness to conform their behavior to the law, and avenues for obtaining information that may enable behavioral scientists to better identify predictive behavior and thresholds of behavior that require intervention (treatment or sanctions, as appropriate).


Many Americans may find the old adage an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure difficult to believe. But who would have thought that such horrible acts of school violence could occur in rural areas of the United States? Unfortunately, Americans need to accept that grisly, violent acts can occur anywhere and be committed by almost anyone, even a child.

If a youngster can take a gun to school and pull the trigger, then communities must come together to deal with this problem in a multidisciplinary approach. The phenomenon of school violence is complicated and will take a great deal of wisdom to address properly. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies must develop comprehensive plans for responding to such attacks, and they must join with their schools and communities to implement prevention programs. Doing so will make American children feel good about themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, and their country. To paraphrase a familiar saying, all it takes for the triumph of evil is for a few good people to do nothing.(8)

Violence Indicators

Several factors exist that may indicate that individuals have the potential to commit violence. While these indicators are by no means certain or present in every case of violence, children who exhibit these symptoms should receive counseling services in an effort to prevent the potential of future violent acts.

* The individuals demonstrate low self-esteem.

* The individuals have committed previous acts of cruelty, to animals. This is a symptom of child abuse, along with setting fires, bed-wetting (beyond a normal age), and being abusive to adults. FBI research has found that these indicators frequently appear in the childhoods of serial violent sexual offenders and may exist in cases of juvenile violence.

* The individuals are fascinated with firearms. In the six cases of school violence, the offenders used firearms, which they allegedly obtained without parental or guardian consent or stole outright.

* The individuals' mothers or other family members disrespect them. This creates a feeling of powerlessness when coupled with chronic abuse and can initiate the need to exert power over and control another. It also can result in extreme anger.

* The individuals see violence as the only alternative left for them. In the six school shootings, the suspects carefully planned their crimes and thoroughly premeditated the actual events.

Offender Profile

The suspects involved in the six school shootings that the FBI reviewed displayed similar traits. While any one of these characteristics alone may not describe a potential school shooter, taken together, they provide a profile that may assist law enforcement, schools, and communities to identify at-risk students.

* The suspects were white males under 18 years old with mass or spree murderer traits.

* They sought to defend narcissistic views or favorable beliefs about themselves, while, at the same time, they had very low self-esteem.

* They experienced a precipitating event (e.g., a failed romance) that resulted in depression and suicidal thoughts that turned homicidal.

* They lacked, or perceived a lack of, family support. Two of the suspects killed one or both of their parents.

* They felt rejected by others and sought revenge or retaliation for real or perceived wrongs done to them.

* They acquired firearms generally owned by a family member or someone they knew.

* They perceived that they were different from others and disliked those who were different (i.e., self-loathing). They needed recognition, and when they did not receive positive recognition, they sought negative recognition.

* They had a history of expressing anger or displaying minor acts of aggressive physical contact at school.

* They had a history of mental health treatment.

* They seemed to have trouble with their parents, though no apparent evidence of parental abuse existed.

* They were influenced by satanic or cult-type belief systems or philosophical works.

* They listened to songs that promote violence.

* They appeared to be loners, average students, and sloppy or unkempt in dress.

* They seemed to be influenced or used by other manipulative students to commit extreme acts of violence.

* They appeared isolated from others, seeking notoriety by attempting to "copycat" other previous school shootings but wanting to do it better than the last shooter.

* They had a propensity to dislike popular students or students who bully others.

* They expressed interest in previous killings.

* They felt powerless and, to this end, may have committed acts of violence to assert power over others.

* They openly expressed a desire to kill others.

* They exhibited no remorse after the killings.

Scholastic Crime Stoppers

The Scholastic Crime Stoppers Program promotes school spirit, pride, and responsibility. It allows students to take action against victimization and crime by anonymously reporting such activities to the school administration. The students receive a monetary reward ranging from $5 to $100 if the tip proves instrumental in solving a crime. This program is found mostly in high schools, but elementary and junior high schools, along with universities and colleges, have begun to implement such initiatives.

The program is operated by students who appoint a board of directors composed of students who market and advertise the program, raise funds, review information about crimes, and determine rewards. However, the success of the program often depends directly upon the amount of support and encouragement that the school administration provides.

Schools should tailor the program to fit their specific needs. Some schools have implemented Crime Stopper hot lines, billboards, contests, designated Crime Stopper days, and parades to deliver their message of zero tolerance against crime.

For additional information, visit the Scholastic Crime Stoppers Web site at


1 "America Under the Gun: Assaults in U.S. Schools," The New York Times, April 26, 1999, available from; accessed April 26, 1999.

2 These lessons resulted from a 2-day school violence summit hosted by the FBI's Little Rock Field Office and the Arkansas State Police and moderated by the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit in August 1998. Representatives from Pearl, Mississippi; Stamps and Jonesboro, Arkansas; Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Springfield, Oregon; and Paducah, Kentucky, shared their experiences. The suggestions they offered for dealing with school violence form the basis of this article.

3 The National Organization for Victim Assistance is located at 1757 Park Road, NW, Washington, DC 20010-2101 and can be contacted at 202-232-6682 or 800-TRY-NOVA or at its Web site

4 Maude Marie Clark, "Nietzsche, Friedrich," in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1998.

5 Ibid. The musician wrote an article about the shooting at Littleton, Colorado. See Marilyn Manson, "Columbine: Whose Fault Is It?" Rolling Stone, May 1999, available from; accessed June 4, 1999.

6 Deborah Prothrow-Stith, Deadly Consequences (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 29-47.

7 Supra note 2. These suggestions were contributed by a chief of police attending the seminar.

8 The original quote, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," is attributed to Sir Edmund Burke in John Bartlett, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 16th ed., ed. Justin Kaplan, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1992), 332.

Special Agent Stephen R. Band is the chief of the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy.

Special Agent Joseph A. Harpold is an instructor in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Harpold, Joseph A.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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