Tuesday afternoon – one day before the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in which 20 first-graders and six adults shot and killed by Adam Lanza, who then took his own life, on December 14, 2012 – Alamance-Burlington school board members heard a presentation that some hope could prevent that kind of tragedy from playing out here.
Earl Sam, a special agent with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, and Dr. Nicole Jones, a psychologist with the SBI, gave an hour-long presentation at a special-called school board meeting Tuesday afternoon about how to identify and respond to the potential warning signs of a would-be school shooter.
“This is a proactive attempt to protect our campuses and our community,” ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler told The Alamance News Tuesday afternoon. “This is a good example of law enforcement and mental health [professionals] coming together to help our kids and protect our campuses and our community.”
School board members were joined by several dozen ABSS principals and support staff for the presentation by the SBI at the school system’s Central Office Tuesday afternoon.
ABSS officials confirmed for the newspaper later Tuesday afternoon that this was the first time that the board and school administrators have heard this type of presentation about by the SBI.
Sam and Jones are part of the SBI’s Behavioral Threat Assessment (BeTA) unit, which is staffed by law enforcement officers, intelligence analysts, and mental health professionals, who identify and investigate “persons of concern” in North Carolina recognized as having the motive and means to commit what the SBI terms a “targeted attack.”
Jones, the SBI psychologist, detailed for the school board each of the processes that go on in the brain in formulating the rationale and plans for a mass attack.
“The pathway to violence is a cognitive behavioral model [that] starts typically with a grievance,” Jones explained. “Something is happening where they start to think about carrying out a violent act as a solution to a problem [and] then start to plan. We’ve got students across North Carolina, where they’re drawing maps.”
The research around school shootings in recent decades has shown that, in most cases, perpetrators begin by gathering information before an attack occurs, Jones said, adding there’s “often an underlying idea that, ‘my life is not worth much, and if I die tomorrow, it won’t mean much.’”
A mass, targeted act of violence is, for some perpetrators, a way to counter that sense of worthlessness, because when a school shooting occurs, Jones said, “Everybody will know their name.”
“If we can intervene here, we might make them less aggrieved and hopefully make them choose a life that’s worth living,” Jones said.
Building the profile
Jones told school board members and ABSS principals that several risk factors are associated with a higher likelihood of committing violence.
In schools, students may exhibit some or all of the following behaviors: Increasing isolation from other people and activities; decline in school performance; increased absenteeism/tardiness; sudden change in behavior or appearance; substance abuse; bullying others; threatening or engaging in other acts of violence; and expressing thoughts of violence through writing assignments, art, online posts, or statements to others.
“They start to externalize the blame on other people,” she said, adding that another hallmark is when someone gets fixated on what’s wrong in his or her life. “They start to believe they don’t have anyone in their corner [who] really cares” and get caught up in negative self-talk such as, “‘I’m failing; I’m not going to get into college,’” Jones said.
One example of a person who may be at risk for committing an act of violence is someone one who has been highly active on social media but suddenly “goes dark,” i.e., stops posting altogether, Jones said, noting this is one of several types of “cessation behaviors” associated with violence. “The time to attack or self-harm is very close,” the SBI psychologist told the board during her presentation Tuesday afternoon.
However, Jones emphasized, “Everybody has these risk factors, and just because someone exhibits concerning behavior, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be a school shooter.
The SBI psychologist pointed to “warning behaviors,” which Jones said had been documented by Dr. J. Reid Meloy, a psychologist and researcher whose violence risk and threat assessment is widely used in law enforcement today.
These behaviors include “leakage,” or “communication to a third party of their intent to cause harm,” such as “telling a friend, ‘hey, don’t come to school tomorrow,’” Jones explained. That often progresses to “fixation,” or becoming increasingly preoccupied with previous school shootings and mass attacks. “It becomes difficult for them to avert their attention,” Jones said, adding, “These people start to think, ‘That’s awful – I wonder if I could do that.’”
Another red flag that law enforcement look for is what Jones termed “novel aggression,” or practicing carrying out an attack through other acts of aggression and violence. She said the Parkland shooter –who carried out the mass attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018 – initially “practiced with frogs,” which according to Jones, is the type of behavior that potential shooters start with “to see if they can get over the hump of harming someone.”
Jones said that potential shooters move “from the cognitive portion” – or visualizing carrying out an attack – to forming an actual plan by accumulating weapons and casing a building where they plan to carry it out.
Another common characteristic shared by previous mass shooters is a tendency to make “last resort” statements, Jones said, as they enter their final stages of planning to carry out an attack. “This is someone who is at imminent risk,” she explained. “Then, [they’re] not sleeping, amassing weapons, seem much more energetic.”
Following his arrest in the June 17, 2015 mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Dylan Roof “said he had to do something because he was too small, so he had to find some other way he could change society,” Jones said Tuesday.
Both Jones and Sam, the SBI special agent, elaborated that the immediate goal of an investigation into what their agency terms a “person of concern” is not a criminal charge, but rather to understand what’s happening with that person and why.
“We need to understand the context [of] why an individual is starting to acquire firearms,” Sam said Tuesday afternoon. That’s a complex process that begins with a “subject interview” but also includes interviews with friends, family members, coworkers, and others. Those interviews, which he termed “collateral sources,” serve two purposes: to provide historical information and behavioral evidence, as well as to develop future cooperation between schools and agencies, the special agent explained. While school officials “must carefully consider how each interview” will affect the subject of an investigation, they must also maintain confidentiality while observing and documenting behaviors, said Sam.
“Documentation shows how this individual’s ideation [formulation of a rationale and a plan to commit violence] progresses and subsides,” he added.
School shooting averted last week in Fuquay-Varina
The presentation by Sam and Jones came less than a week after a sixth-grader fired a gun inside a classroom at Fuquay-Varina Middle School (in the Wake County public school system) last Thursday morning.
A teacher and an assistant principal ultimately disarmed a 12-year-old student who brought an unidentified handgun to school and fired it inside a classroom, shooting a window, shortly before 8:00 a.m. last Thursday, The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported. A 39-year-old man in Willow Spring has been charged with misdemeanor selling/giving a weapon to a minor, according to the newspaper’s report.
At the conclusion of their presentation Tuesday afternoon, Jones and Sam offered to field questions; school board members and ABSS principals who were seated in the audience had none.