Sandy Hook School Shooting

Could a Threat Assessment Have Prevented the Sandy Hook Massacre?

Social scientists try to prevent school shootings by identifying possible perpetrators.


Why? That's what we all want to know. Why did 20-year-old Adam Lanza choose to kill 20 first graders and 6 of their teachers? According to The New York Times, Lanza destroyed the hard drive of his computer and no diary or other notes have so far surfaced. So we may never know his murderous motivations. Could Lanza's rampage have been stopped?

Since mass murders at schools rightly provoke a special kind of horror, lots of social science and criminological research has been focused on identifying possible perpetrators and devising interventions to prevent it. A good review of this research was published in 2002 by the Safe Schools Initiative [PDF], an analysis organized by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. That review looked at 37 instances of school shootings involving 41 shooters that took place between 1974 and 2000.  

Who were the attackers? All of them were male, ranging in ages from 11 to 21. Three quarters of them were white and most were living with at least one biological parent. Over 40 percent were doing well in school, receiving As and Bs; 15 percent receiving Bs and Cs; and 22 percent Cs and Ds. Only 5 percent were failing. While 34 percent felt themselves to be "loners," 40 percent socialized with "mainstream" students; while a quarter of them were part of "fringe" high school cliques. In addition, nearly two-thirds of the shooters had never been in trouble or rarely were in trouble. However, 27 percent had been suspended from school and 10 percent had been expelled.

The study confirmed the now-conventional wisdom that school shooters felt bullied, i.e., over 70 percent. Despite the fact that more than 60 percent of the attackers had a history of feeling extremely depressed and more than three-quarters had a history of suicidal thoughts or actions, fewer than one-fifth of them had been diagnosed with mental health issues or behavioral problems.

Media violence—movies, internet, video games—is often blamed for school shootings. In The Hill, Sen. Jay Rockefeller called the Newtown school massacre a "wake up call" for federal action. "While we don't know if such images impacted the killer in Newtown, the issue of violent content is serious and must be addressed," declared the senator. The Safe School Initiatives review reported that about one-quarter of attackers were particularly interested in violent movies and books; one-eighth in violent video games; and more than a third expressed an interest in violence in their own writings.

The report noted, "Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely are sudden, impulsive acts." Almost all of the shooters planned their attacks, and more than half developed their idea for the attack at least a month in advance. Motives for the attacks were often multiple, included revenge (61 percent); to solve a problem (34 percent); desperation (27 percent); and achieve recognition (24 percent). Very disturbingly, in 80 percent of the cases, at least one other person had information that the shooter was planning an attack, usually a sibling, friend, or schoolmate. An adult had prior information about the attack in only two out the 37 cases in the review. The vast majority of shooters did not threaten their targets in advance of their attack. Most attackers had some experience with guns and two-thirds acquired the weapons used in their attacks from their own home or that of a relative. Most attacks ended in less than 15 minutes and law enforcement intervention ended only about a quarter of the incidents.

So how does Adam Lanza match the description of school shooters? Since the Safe School Initiative's definition of "targeted school violence" is limited to "a current student or recent former student," Lanza's attack on the Sandy Hook Elementary School doesn't neatly fit. According to news reports, it is not clear that Lanza ever attended school there. In any case, Lanza was a white male, under age 21, never before in trouble, with an apparent interest in violent video games, and familiar with firearms that he acquired for his attack from his home. So far there is no reported good read on his pre-attack mental state, although he has been described as a shy "loner" who was perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum. If anyone had any information that might have indicated that he was planning an attack, it would most likely have been his mother who was the first victim of his rampage.

The Safe School Initiative report is quite adamant that there is no reliable "profile" of a school shooter. Of course, it's pretty easy to retrospectively slot shooters into the above categories, but hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of school kids who do not shoot their schoolmates can be pigeonholed into those categories. Given the fact that school shootings are so rare and that past shooters differ considerably in their personalities, and their demographic and social characteristics, constructing prospective profiles able to predict which students are a risk for committing school massacres is impossible. "There is no accurate or useful profile of students who engaged in targeted violence," conclude the researchers.

The researchers at the Safe School Initiative suggest that one possibly effective way to prevent school shootings is a process of threat assessment [PDF] that looks at behaviors rather than an individual student's "traits." Threat assessment asks if a particular student is exhibiting behaviors that suggest preparations for an attack; how fast is he moving toward an attack; and where might intervention be possible? 

The Safe School Initiative recommends that schools set up threat assessment teams with a designated person as the widely known central contact for any information regarding possible threats. What kind of information? Perhaps a student writes a story for English class about a character who shoots other students; or a student overhears a conversation in which another student vows to "get even for good." Recall that in 80 percent of the cases reviewed by the Safe School Initiative, at least one other person had information about the upcoming attack. However, many schools have a "no snitching" culture among students that is a barrier to getting relevant information to teachers, counselors, and administrators. The report advises that schools establish cultures of mutual respect among students and faculty. Well, yes.

One good example of how this might be done is a school district that regularly asks faculty members to identify those students with whom they have the closest relationships by putting a star next to their posted names at staff meetings. The staff then concentrates on establishing relationships with those students with fewest stars.

Considering that 70 percent of school shooters felt bullied, steps to reduce bullying might help prevent future school massacres. Fourteen percent of students, ages 12 through 18, reported being bullied during school in 2001, rising to 28 percent in 2005 and 32 percent in 2007, but falling to 28 percent in 2009. Forty-nine states now have anti-bullying statutes. One might hope that the increase in bullying statistics stems from recent anti-bullying campaigns making students more comfortable about reporting it rather than an absolute increase. Nevertheless, one survey found that only 36 percent of cases of bullying are reported. "No snitching" to teachers is apparently still the rule among teenagers.

Ultimately, the most important aspect of the threat assessment approach is that it be based on the facts of a particular case and on a specific student's behaviors, not "traits" that allegedly characterize would-be school shooters. Does it work? Non-events are hard to document. However, there is at least one case in which researchers argue that a student targeted by a threat assessment methodology in a California vocational school was ill-treated. The student made a vague threat to kill the school district superintendent. He was removed from school and placed in an alternative school for kids with behavioral problems. Violating the rule that such assessments should be based on facts and behaviors, there was no evidence of any planning on the student's part. In addition, the assessment targeted (profiled) the alienated clique of skater kids that he hung out with.

Would the threat assessment approach have identified Adam Lanza as a risk? Given the information currently available, the answer is no. So far there is no evidence Lanza told anyone of his plans. As for bullying, he may well have felt bullied during his relatively short stint in public schools, but by most accounts teachers and administrators had identified him as a likely victim and took steps to prevent it. Did anyone know if Lanza had an unusual interest in targeted violence? Feelings of hopelessness? Show evidence of planning? Worry other people about his potential for harm? Given his isolation from the community, it is unlikely that any sort of threat assessment methodology would have identified him as a potential mass murderer of first graders.

I agree with President Barack Obama that "meaningful action" should be taken prevent future schoolhouse carnage. Meaningful action in this case would be fashioning schools that respect all of their students; protect them from bullying; foster enough mutual trust to curtail "no snitch" teenage culture; and offer students proactive counseling on how to handle their emotional challenges. But that's a whole lot harder than grandstanding about banning assault rifles or violent video games.  

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  1. Why? That's what we all want to know. Why did 20-year-old Adam Lanza choose to kill 20 first graders and 6 of their teachers?

    I think I can help you with that. He was a lunatic.

    The idea of threat assessments, like pretty much every other possible preventative measure being floated, will have negative consequences. You mandate threat assessments and guaranteed there will be hysterical overreactions from administrators fearful of missing something, of letting a killer slip through.

    1. FofE: You are right about the possibility of negative consequences. No human institutions or systems are perfect. The goal is to make them better through experience over time.

      I do note one reported case in which threat assessment did go wrong. If H&R readers come across other such cases, please let me know.

      1. You know who else had a threat assessment go wrong ....

        1. Xerxes?

        2. Manny Pacquiao?

          1. Napoleon Bonaparte?

            1. On February 11, 1990, Mike Tyson.

              1. on july 19th 1991, Desiree Washington?

          2. Manny Pacquiao?

            Well played sir.

    2. The best response to identified "threats" is an undercover attempt to "turn" the threat into a more positive life style. It's very difficult to accomplish, but worth considering.

  2. I am suspicious of "bullying" being a cause of any of these shootings. Wouldn't someone bullied want to shoot the bullies and not just everyone at the school indiscriminately?

    1. Maybe not all, but at least SOME of the shooters would just target specific bullies, you'd think.

    2. Well, in this case, these kids had absolutely nothing to do with anything. But in a standard school shooting, if the victims are all part of a clique, I'm not shocked. It's easy for a victim to see even those that don't directly participate as aiding and abetting those that do by validating their behavior.

      Imagine some place (PGC, Chicago, whatever) where police are brutal, corrupt scumbags. The "good cops" still help the bad cops get away with it by creating an environment that protects in-group assholes favorable treatment, even at the expense of out-group innocents. If a SWAT team kicks in a guy's door and accidentally kills his unarmed child and no one is even reprimanded, much less fired or imprisoned, are we really going to give him shit if he goes on a rampage that incidentally kills a lot of cops that weren't on the scene (but no non-cops)?

    3. Especially 6 year olds he did not go to school with. Soothing parents and teachers I would expect from some bullying victims. Kind of surprised we don't see it more often, but apparently most kids know they will be 18 eventually.

  3. --guns?
    -- patchwork mental health system?
    -- video games?
    --violent movies?
    --No prayer in schools?
    -- decline in values?
    -- War on Boys?

    Is there anything we forgot?

    Oh yeah, BULLYING!

    How'd that happen?

    1. I do think bullying is the correct answer, given that the person in question had Asperger's Syndrome.

      1. Yeah, I think bullying is the largest factor in most cases. Public schools fucking suck.

        1. The problem is that when they intervene to help kids struggling socially, they do it in a "why can't you be more normal? let's teach you how" way.

          Which is a surefire way to push people who just can't/won't be normal to be more alienated and angry.

          1. I've made a similar argument. you get a situation where a kid is shy and quiet,but shy and quiet is abnormal. well if the kid has an IQ of 140 he might have a damn rational reason for being shy and quiet. that may be a really good coping strategy. people of average intelligence can be as infuriating to really smart people as retards can be to average people and not engaging them may well keep you from getting angry. and someone telling you to act more like them is just going to be completely discounted. suddenly you get diagnosed with a whole host of personality disorders and those well meaning parents start the pearl clutching and want the kid medicated with drugs that can have horrible side effects like suicide. and all that because you didn't want to talk to a bunch of knuckle draggers.

          2. Exactly, Harassing an already harassed kid isn't going to help.

            I'm not sure what the answer is. According to 1980s movies, the best course would be to find a popular and/or tough kid and pay him to be the unpopular kid's friend and/or bodyguard. But I'm not sure that would really work (or the school should pay for it).

            The real answer is for teachers and staff to do a better job, cracking down on kids being assholes to others, but they are all apathetic for the most part, it's not going to happen.

        2. Exactly. School choice is a gay rights issue.

      2. Maybe the Ass-Burger should have considered targeting those who bullied him instead of a bunch of first graders.

        1. But from all the accounts I've read there is no report that he was ever bullied by anyone especially.

  4. Snitching used to get you beat up (I'm talking 50s and 60s) whereas if you kept your mouth shut, the perp eventually got caught doing something wrong anyway.
    What happens these days in school? Would snitching lead to a greater quantity in violence than seen in these very rare horrible retaliation

    1. Well wouldn't that be a kick in the head if it's true.

      1. Interestingly, this report revives a recent connection of Nancy Lanza to Sandy Hook.

  5. Ultimately, the most important aspect of the threat assessment approach is that it be based on the facts of a particular case and on a specific student's behaviors, not "traits" that allegedly characterize would-be school shooters

    Right, so with the difficulty of creating a profile of a likely shooter, why not just make it impossible for him to get a gun.

    1. Why not just resurrect everyone he kills, as long we're talking about magic?

    2. Lanza stole his guns. i didn't realize we could stop theft completely simply by passing a law.

      1. That's not necessarily true. It's quite possible he had regular access to these guns with his mother's permission. Supposedly she took him to the range to train him on firearms.

        In any case, it's not comparable to a case where a burglar breaks in and steals your guns.

        1. not really. I think we can assume his mother didn't give him permission to use the guns to kill her. the guns weren't his property. he never bought them so regulations on purchase wouldn't have stopped him. you would have to show they would have stopped his mother from acquiring them. just because he didn't have to break a window and had a relationship with his victim doesn't make the taking of property any less of a theft.

  6. why not just make it impossible for him to get a gun.

    With a sprinkle of fairy dust and a wave of your magic wand?

    The whole threat assessment thing gives me the willies. First off, it sounds like it would be pretty ineffective, hitting that bureaucratic sweet spot of being both underinclusive and overinclusive. Note that it wouldn't have caught Lanza. If your peddling a "solution" that wouldn't even solve the problem at hand, then maybe you should be shown the door.

    Second, of course, it will require that we lard up our schools with even more administrators.

    And, of course, third, since we know it will be incompetently administered along the brainless lines of "zero tolerance", you can be sure that it will do damage to complete innocents.

    1. This. Short of either the killer doing something stupid in the planning phase and getting caught or some kind of Minority Report-style future prediction system, you simply aren't going to be able to stop these events.

    2. Maybe all guns should have DNA activated triggers like in Skyfall

  7. It's religion, once we got rid of nuns in schools we had guns in schools!

    Or maybe it's popular music. Rock n' Roll has led to GLOCK and Kill!

    Fast food? Cheap and fast leads to kill them all and myself last!

    This materialistic individualistic society? Since it's all about me it's time to go on a spree!

    Or perhaps My Little Pony? The Devil is in Twilight Sprinkle so I'm gonna er....tinkle on life as a metaphor or something...I don't know.

    1. These spree killings never happen in North Korea.

      1. Unless sanctioned for the Greater Good, of course.

      2. Would we even know if they did?

      3. That's because in North Korea if you shoot it you eat it.

  8. Threat assessments will be at least as effective as sexual predator lists, with the extra bonus of probably punishing innocent people even more.

    1. Argh - ...punishing even more innocent people...

      1. Both, BP. It's both.

      2. it works both ways

  9. In grade school I wrote a story of a vengeful student (I don't remember if I put it in 1st person) who winds up aerially bombing the school.

    1. If you did that today, within five minutes of the teacher reading it, you'd be led out of the school in handcuffs - assuming you survived the tasering.

      1. Or the 300 lb LEO kneeling on your chest screaming at you to stop resisting.

  10. Sandy Hook shooting is a big news story because of...


  11. I think that we have school shootings because that's where we keep the kids - without any means of self-defense or meaningful security.

    1. I agree: We go out of our way to provide tempting, target-rich environments, and then act surprised when terrorists and wackos take advantage of the opportunity. Instead of working on ways to deprive the overwhelming majority of gun owners, who keep and use their firearms responsibly, of their 2nd Amendment rights, we should be asking ourselves, "why do we cling to mass-schooling as a cherished part of our way of life?" This is America. It is supposed to be all about freedom! So the onus is on us, to find solutions to our social problems that not only avoid reduction of individual freedom, but actually expand that freedom wherever and whenever possible.

      If my choice is between eliminating huge schools (or even eliminating public schools as we know them) and imposing gun control, I'll reform or dump the school system. It makes no sense to concentrate our juvenile populations in public institutions for most of each day, where they are convenient targets. The proposals I have seen in the last few days, to increase school security to the point that schools become almost indistinguishable from the prisons they have long resembled, strikes me as "progress" in the absolutely wrong direction.

  12. Dude that makes a lot of sense. Wow.

  13. These things are perpetrated by loners, mostly. Columbine was an aberration in that there were two agressors.
    These puds must be classified as what they are, terrorists. And if you can find a way to stop the lone fuck, bent on mayhem, the Israelis would love to know.

    1. If he was a loner, why is the only picture of him from a high school club he was in?

      What kind of loner joins clubs?

      For that matter, he had a brother 4 years older, and a father. Shouldn't we wait until they chime in about him before we jump to any conclusions based on neighbors and such?

      1. Loner. As in the sense that he committed his mayhem....alone. As in, without the aid of a band of complicit aides.
        Fuck the clubs, his mother, his brother, and any aunts or uncles yet unnamed.
        Now, stfu and go sit down.

  14. Threat assessment approach? Seriously? So you want to establish some sort of Bureau of Pre-Crime to perform threat assessments of everyone and have them watched and harassed, in case they might do something?

    How is that even remotely libertarian?

    Beyond that, I think one of the worst thing you can do is constantly badger or nag a kid who doesn't fit in, by having a teacher or parent constantly telling him he should be more outgoing and popular. Putting more pressure on kids isn't the answer to defuse them.

    How about this - let the principal keep a gun or two locked up in his office, with keys available to him or the vice-principal. While they might have a propensity to sleep with older students, I've rarely heard of one shooting up a school.

  15. How a gun-grabber looks at tragedy:

    "Look," Glaze said, "when this kind of thing happens, we have to make the case in that very short window ? what went wrong, why it went wrong, how you can fix it ? in a way that motivates Congress to do what it should."
    The Brady Campaign to prevent Gun Violence was on Capitol Hill on Tuesday with members of a new community group, Newtown United.
    Josh Horwitz with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence said his group just hired temporary staff to deal with hundreds of new volunteers who want to help after Newtown.
    "It depends on the shooting," Glaze said. "With something as terrible as this is, involving children, the window is open a little wider than it has been before. I think my back of the envelope is usually about a month. But after the series of mass shootings and the gravity of this one, I think we may have a little more time."

    Glad those dead kids could provide you with a larger 'window' for pushing your agenda.

    Quoted from here.

  16. Why? That's what we all want to know. Why did 20-year-old Adam Lanza choose to kill 20 first graders and 6 of their teachers?

    'Cuz he was pissed at them about something - really pissed. You don't shoot someone in the face four times, like he did his sleeping mother, unless you're really angry about something. It's like stabbing someone many times - it's done in a rage. And most of the kids and adults at the school were shot multiple times as well. The only other explanation for so many shots might be that he had never killed anyone or anything before and didn't realize living beings don't usually die instantly when shot with a small caliber weapon.

    What was he pissed about? Who knows? There haven't been enough dependable facts presented yet.

    1. it's done in a rage. Or out of fear and panic - like when cops empty a clip or two into someone.

      1. Like a tail-wagging puppy.

  17. "Considering that 70 percent of school shooters felt bullied, steps to reduce bullying might help prevent future school massacres." Bullshit. Bullying has existed throughout the history of public schooling and during times when the ONLY definition of "gun control" was a sharp eye and steady hand. The difference is that school kids in recent history have been "pussified" by policies intended to protect their fragile little egos like giving everyone a trophy and other such foolishness. The end result is that kids today are much less mentally tough than kids of the past and therefore much less able to deal with adverse situations like being bullied. Couple that with the violent movies and video games that desensitize kids to violence and you've got the perfect storm for this kind of tragedy. Focusing on bullying is foolish and futile. Lets look at undoing the whole "pussification" process that has taken over the public schools the last 20-25 years.

    1. I don't think violent movies or video games are the cause. hell i'm a Marine. I was taught (damn near brainwashed) to kill and i don't solve my problems with a gun. I think this is a case of the government being entrusted to keep children safe while they are being educated and failing miserably. How's this for a first step to safer schools. Lock the doors.

  18. If the government run schools actually took the responsibility of caring for our children while we send them there each day to to be educated, you'd think they would spend 10 minutes thinking about security. Violating the 2nd Amendment won't solve this problem. The govt needs to think about ways to defend the schools (i'm a Marine). This happened because a nutcase wanted to do it and there were no barriers in place to prevent him from gaining access to the school. Maybe they should start by locking the doors. Making people call the front desk or a security guard from the door to be let in. Just another example of how bad the government is at taking care of people.

  19. Reason tries to reason us all out of serious thinking about all the obvious connections of guns, mental illness, violent video games, and psychotropic drugs merging at the nexus point of school shootings.

    Just because not everybody at that juncture is a school shooter doesn't mean that we can't examine that juncture and devise ways to face the challenge.

    Let me summarize why I think you can make a threat assessment and what criteria to look for -- with an aim to prevention and mitigation, not violation of anyone's civil rights:

    1. Parents and caregivers of children and young people with autism spectrum disorders who become violent -- and they can indeed become violent when they are comorbid with conduct disorder and other psychiatric illnesses -- should be able to seek competent help and be able to confine their children if they are a danger to themselves or others more readily than they currently can. These cases will be a small percentage of cases of Aspergers/autism. No, preventive detention or prescreening of all autisim cases will hardly be required and indeed would constitute a violation of civil rights. But those with a history of violent incidents and comorbidity will be definable already and parents shouldn't be deterred from getting restrictive residential treatment for their kids in institutions just because institutions were abusive in the past, or some institutions today might not be the best therapy.

  20. 2. Parents and caregivers of children and young people with autism spectrum disorders or any child who is being given powerful antipsychotic drugs like Risperdal, Seroquel, Fanapt or others should question the medication and also insist their children be carefully monitored and evaluated, and both the medical profession and society at large should insist on more answers about these drugs.

    o Parents and caregivers of those with autism spectrum disorders should not let violent movies, violent games, and the Internet in general babysit their difficult kids. They should limit their exposure to these powerful and often addictive cultural influencers and interact more with their children themselves in other ways with other activities.

    o Parents and others should ensure that neither they nor their children have access to guns.

    Now was that so hard?

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