By Jessica Nye, PhD
Would-be school attackers were motivated to plan violent attacks by grievances including bullying, and many had suicidal ideation and symptoms of depression, according to a study of 67 disrupted plots to attack schools conducted by the United States Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center.
The plotted attacks included in this study had to involve an incident which took place between 2006 and 2018. The targets were high schools (84%) and middle schools (15%) located in 33 states. Most of these schools (67%) had school resource officers; however, only a third of the schools (34%) had a notification system to report concerns or trained staff (31%) who could assess student behavior.
The 67 plots were most frequently planned by a single individual (64%), a quarter involved 2 individuals (27%), and a few (9%) involved from 3 to 6 students. Among the 100 plotters, 95 were boys or men aged between 11 and 19 years enrolled in grades 6 to 12. A few plotters were former students (n=5).
The most commonly cited motivation for planning an attack was a grievance (45%) with other students (31%), school staff (10%), or romantic partners (6%). A total of 14 plotters indicated they had been bullied. Other motivations included a desire to kill (15%), suicidal ideation (13%), desire for fame (12%), interest in White supremacy (3%), and anti-female sentiment (3%).
Only 1 plotter was determined to have been influenced by psychotic symptoms, but most (70%) had behaviors consistent with some type of mental health symptom, such as emotional or psychological (63%) symptoms. A third (33%) had a history of substance use or abuse.
The majority of plotters (85%) had made plans about weapons that included acquiring a weapon (57%), researching weapons or bomb making (36%), manufacturing bombs or incendiary devices (27%), practicing using their weapon of choice (18%), or stealing a weapon (9%). Most (55%) chose 2 or 3 types of weapons, specifically firearms (96%), explosives (51%), incendiary devices (18%), and bladed weapons (12%). Most individuals (67%) who planned to use firearms had potential access to a gun, and half of those who planned to use an explosive had constructed one or acquired materials for fabrication.
Of these plotters, 73% had also planned how to execute their attack, 57% had made documented plans, 31% had researched previous school attacks, and 16% had attempted to recruit other perpetrators.
These attacks were foiled because 75% of the plotters had their plans observed by a classmate (69%), an adult (19%), or others (13%). A few plots were detected by behavior alone (10%), and a few plotters self-reported (4%) their scheme. Social media use led to discovery of plots in 16% of cases.
Most plots were foiled 1 or 2 days prior to the planned attack date (36%) or on the same day (27%). Peers (61%) and family members (12%) were most frequently the person who reported their suspicions. Most often, suspicions were reported to a member of school staff (42%), law enforcement (30%), or the school resource officer (12%).
The study authors concluded school violence may be prevented by bystanders reporting suspected plotters.
Averting Targeted School Violence: A U.S. Secret Services Analysis of Plots Against Schools. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center. Published March 30, 2021. Accessed April 12, 2021. https://www.secretservice.gov/sites/default/files/reports/2021-03/USSS%20Averting%20Targeted%20School%20Violence.2021.03.pdf