Opinion: We already know how to help prevent school violence

Learning and adopting established, research-based procedures can mitigate risk.

An old college friend, knowing that my work focuses on preventing school violence and mass casualty attacks, texted me after the most recent school shooting and asked, “Don’t you feel helpless?”

I do, but not for the reason she thought.

I don’t feel helpless because I think these attacks cannot be prevented or mitigated. I feel helpless because after every one of these incidents pundits ignore the vast body of research and published standards addressing school violence and either claim that we, as a society, do not know what to do, or attribute the violence to whatever the most convenient political target is for their audience.

C. Joshua Villines

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

My response is akin to what a physicist would feel upon seeing reporters standing next to the site of an avalanche and saying, “We may never know what mysterious force causes rocks to fall toward the Earth” while frothy-mouthed commentators rant on their podcasts that it’s “likely caused by aliens.” While no physicist would claim to fully understand how gravity works, they do understand that it behaves in predictable ways that can be measured, evaluated, and anticipated, and they do not need to attribute the effects of gravity to random outside causes.

The same is true for school shootings and mass violence.

We have well over two decades of research on the factors that increase the risks for a person to commit an act of targeted violence, the strategies that can mitigate that risk, and the protective factors that can reduce the impact of a mass casualty event – especially one in a school. Much of that research is available in free resources from the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and nonprofits like Safe Schools for Alex. It has been vetted through peer review, and is also available in an ANSI-approved standard.

Despite all of this, many politicians act like we need to “investigate” this seemingly novel phenomenon, many school administrators make up policies from thin air and many law enforcement agencies rely on their experience responding to crimes rather than learning the strategies proven to prevent them.

I don’t feel helpless because I do not know what will work. I feel helpless because I do know, and the people who should also know do not seem to care.

So, what can you do as a student, a teacher, or a concerned citizen? Here are some practical steps that you can take immediately.

1.) Ask if your school or university has a current Security Vulnerability Assessment (SVA) for the organization as a whole and for every building on campus. An SVA evaluates the known risks and likely threats to the school, identifies vulnerabilities and recommends solutions based on current research and best practices. There are formal standards for how to conduct an SVA, what credentials the person conducting it should have and how often it should be renewed. Often, local law enforcement agencies will have crime prevention officers who have completed advanced training in crime prevention and are available to conduct SVA’s for free. When completed, the SVA should result in a written security plan.

2.) Ask your school or university about their Threat Assessment/Management Team (TAMT). Every K-12 and higher educational institution should have a threat assessment team, the basic standards for which were established by a joint study conducted by the Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service following the Columbine attack. It is not enough to just have a TAMT. TAMT’s should be multidisciplinary, and their members should be formally trained in assessment instruments and methodologies as well as in effective management strategies. As with SVA’s, there is an enormous body of research on how to conduct the work of TAMT’s.

3.) Reach out to your local law enforcement agency, your state law enforcement agency and your state Department of Education to ask about their threat management teams and policies as well. Again, it is not enough just to have the teams in place. They need training and familiarity with the evidence-based strategies that are now the ordinary standard of care in the profession of threat management. Ask your elected representatives to make sure that tax money is allocated to standing up and training threat teams, in a way consistent with the published research.

4.) Learn what the behaviors of concern for violence risk are, learn where to report them and learn what you can do to reduce their prevalence in your school, workplace and community. An excellent place to start is the FBI’s free guide “Making Prevention a Reality. Remember that the identified behaviors are risk factors, not predictors. Just like having high blood pressure does not guarantee that someone is definitely going to have a stroke, having – for instance – a “fascination with weapons, violence, revenge” does not predict that someone is definitely going to commit an act of violence. Nonetheless, as with high blood pressure, preoccupation with violence is a risk factor that should be managed by trained professionals.

To grossly oversimplify thousands of pages of research: acts of mass violence grow out of a perceived sense of injustice by a subject who does not have healthy coping strategies for addressing that sense of grievance.

Perpetrators of targeted violence act in generally predictable ways, based on the resources available to them and the nature of their grievance. As we know from decades of work, we can reduce the risks of targeted and mass violence by reducing the sources for grievance, identifying persons at risk, managing risk factors and relying on evidence-based solutions to create safer spaces.

The question is not “what can we do?” We know the answers.

The question is “why aren’t we already doing it?”

C. Joshua Villines is executive director of Atlanta-based Human Intelligence Group. He is a certified threat manager through the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, and serves as a southeast chapter board member. Villines trains threat assessment teams around the U.S.