U.S. Secret Service Wants Schools To Treat Unhappy Students as Potential Violent Threats

Most teens who are depressed or bullied will never respond with mass violence. You wouldn't know it from these threat assessment recommendations.


"Secret Service research findings [indicate that] targeted school violence is preventable," writes U.S. Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) Director James Murray in a new NTAC report. All schools have to do is treat any student in any sort of distress as a potential danger to everybody else and respond accordingly. That sounds nice, but the plan completely ignores the potential for traumatizing innocent students.

Titled "Protecting America's Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence," NTAC's report advocates for schools throughout the country to adopt violence prevention strategies that are heavily focused on monitoring students for behavioral issues and encouraging others in the school system to anonymously report behavior they deem "concerning."

The 35-page report analyzes 41 incidents of "targeted school violence" that occurred at K-12 schools throughout the country from 2008-2017. NTAC defines "targeted school violence" as: "any incident in which (i) a current or recently former K-12 school student (ii) purposefully used a weapon (iii) to cause physical injury to, or the death of, at least one other student and/or school employee (iv) in or on the immediate property of the school (v) while targeting in advance one or more specific and/or random student(s) and/or employee(s)."

The NTAC report says that "the threshold for intervention should be low, so that schools can identify students in distress before their behavior escalates to the level of eliciting concerns about safety." The report also found that most attackers had experienced some form of bullying at school and had displayed "observable mental health symptoms," such as signs of depression or suicidal thoughts, before their rampages.

One of NTAC's recommendations is for schools to adopt the threat prevention measures the Secret Service outlined in their 2018 guide, "Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing School Violence." That 2018 plan called for examining students' social media posts, searching through their desks at school, and monitoring how students are handling breakups.

The NTAC says its new study isn't intended to provide a perfect psychological or behavioral profile of students who might commit an act of violence. And while it does not outright state that students who are depressed or have been victims of bullying are more likely to commit acts of violence, it does list a "depressed mood" as a red flag. That's so vague that even a student having a bad day could be viewed as a potential threat, let alone a student who is clinically depressed or is a victim of harassment.

While many of the students profiled by the study shared similar experiences and behaviors, the study fails to establish how, exactly, the students could have been appropriately identified as threats before they acted.

In fact, a Department of Defense-commissioned study in 2012 found that in the case of targeted violence, while there are identifiable "pre-existing behaviors" that violent actors tend to portray, these "symptoms" are so general and widespread that false alarms are inevitable, making the reliability of violence prediction methods shaky at best. Despite this conclusion, that same study also suggests that "frequent profanity" is a potential indicator of violence. Using governmental parameters to identify potential attackers might only serve the purpose of stigmatizing students who will never pose a threat.

The NTAC praises these problematic violence prevention programs in its report, such as Colorado's Safe2Tell. Safe2Tell is an anonymous reporting platform that encourages people to report students who might pose a risk to themselves or others in hopes of getting the student help before he or she acts out violently. Safe2Tell recently garnered its highest number of reports to the system during the 2018-2019 school year, logging 19,861 anonymous tips. Notably, most of these reports were about suicide risks, drugs, and bullying, not threats of violence against others, and another 197 were reports about misuses of Safe2Tell. Only 499 (2.5 percent) of the reports were actually about planned school attacks, and Safe2Tell has provided no further information about tips that were relevant to protecting students from other students.

Unfortunately, violence prevention programs are abusable. With Safe2Tell, the police determined that 541 of the tips made to Safe2Tell during the 2018-2019 school year were deliberate hoaxes or false. One high school freshman in Jefferson County was falsely accused via Safe2Tell four separate times over the course of nine months. The 14-year-old was accused of acts ranging from telling others she was going to commit suicide to posting another student's nude photos online. FOX31 reported that the student found the ordeal traumatic, telling the news outlet that she, "couldn't stop crying because [she] was scared," when police showed up at her door to investigate the reports.

Similarly, Nathan Myers, a student at Loveland High School in Loveland, Colo., was reported for taking a picture of a pistol and posting it on SnapChat with the caption, "Finna be lit," before a family outing to the shooting range. Myers was later cleared of all wrongdoing after the school district realized he posed no threat, but according to Myers' mother, when Myers met with district officials prior to his return to school, "They told him he was a good kid, they liked him, and they never believed he was making a threat against the school, but that 'you know we have to do this.'" Jay Stooksberry, covering the incident for Reason, said that, "The mockery [that Myers suffered as a result of the incident] was bad enough that Nathan begged his parents to be homeschooled." Is preventing hypothetical violence really a good excuse for traumatizing innocent children?

As Reason's Jacob Sullum notes, "even if certain "red flags" are common among mass shooters, almost none of the people who display those signs are bent on murderous violence." The vast majority of those who are depressed or bullied will never commit an act of violence, and a comprehensive threat assessment strategy might lead to students who fall into those categories being viewed as potential attackers, even when they pose no threat. As Sullum says, "Given the potential for mass stigma, invasions of privacy, and violations of due process, I'd say we can do a lot worse than failing [to successfully identify potentially violent individuals.]"