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How a ‘culture of reporting’ can disrupt school violence

An integrated approach with multiple information sources plays a role in the detection and prevention of incidents

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The use of a single reporting point, behavioral intervention team and supportive leadership, along with communication from students, staff, faculty and the examination of social media, played a role in the detection and prevention of incidents.

Police1’s guide, Prevention, disruption & response: The strategies communities must deploy to stop school shootings, provides additional resources and tactics to improve school safety. Click here to download.

School incidents in K-12 and institutions of higher education (IHE) almost always (according to FBI data) involve someone affiliated with the facility or who has been affiliated at a prior time.

The key to prevention is knowledge prior to the incident or at a phase where a response can mitigate the incident. To achieve this, we must implement a “culture of reporting.”

This culture involves students, staff and faculty reporting to a single central point. The “reporting point” takes the information, processes and assembles it, performs appropriate and legal backgrounding including criminal history, academic history, mental health issues, etc., and perhaps one of the more important facets, examines social media using a robust search platform.

Most facilities using this model have a lead person involved in or within security/law enforcement but many also have a behavioral intervention team with a holistic background from counseling, medical, academic, and the like. These individuals have had formal behavioral intervention training and signed non-disclosure agreements. In some cases, when not considered an immediate threat, the name of the individual(s) involved is redacted to protect privacy and promote objective assessments.

The interview of associates, friends, acquaintances, and if needed family, are conducted prior to the interview of the person of interest. However, in some instances where an act appears imminent, the person of interest is interviewed immediately. Based upon the interview and fact gathering, the group can decide within the laws of the state and policies of the institution to expel, suspend, terminate employment, or take lesser actions such as a mental health clearance from a professional prior to returning to the institution as a student or employee. Such actions must have the support and be affirmed by the administration and leadership of the facility or institution.

Here are five examples of a culture of reporting in action:

  1. A potential school shooter was stopped a block away from a facility after he set a building on fire to distract law enforcement. Information gathered from the family and acquaintances, including social media searches, led to a “hit list” created by the former student. The student created his first distraction by firing multiple rounds at his parent’s home who reported the act. Based on the background of the individual and his posts, officers were expecting a potential distraction near the school and took the suspect into custody as he emerged from a wood line. The student never articulated a reason for his acts to officers.
  2. Students who trusted local officers (not assigned as school resource officers) provided information that was sufficient to obtain a search warrant. A social media check showed the individual of interest was bragging about building a bomb. Officers executed the search warrant and discovered bomb-making materials and instructions in the student’s home. The student had told fellow students he was attempting to attack others at the school who disliked him. He was charged criminally and expelled from the institution.
  3. A student reported to an officer trusted by the student, that a student was making explosives to bring to school. When the student was confronted, he admitted he had made “flash powder” and had it in his vehicle on the facility grounds. A check of social media demonstrated the student was telling others how to make triacetone triperoxide (TATP), a very unstable explosive. Officers obtained a search warrant and recovered a substantial amount of TATP. This individual had also built a functional homemade firearm. The facility expelled him, and criminal charges were filed.
  4. A student reported to a juvenile investigator that another student at an alternative school had stolen a hand grenade and had it at school. When confronted by officers the student told them where the device was located. The hand grenade was a law enforcement-type distraction device along with another device that explosively dispersed rubber balls and CS powder. The embarrassing part was these were stolen from the local police agency from a SWAT member’s unlocked police vehicle and the theft was unknown until the serial numbers were tracked to that local agency. This student was expelled and prosecuted. Disciplinary action was taken against the officer for failing to secure the items.
  5. The acquaintances of a student advised the student was building a pipe bomb to target an instructor at the educational facility he attended. A check of social media identified remarks that indicated the student had a grievance against the faculty member. Officers obtained a search warrant and found the bomb-making materials but not before the student killed a family member with a firearm. This student fled prior to police arrival and hid in a wooded area equipped with homemade deadfalls, punji pits, trip wires, and other impediments to officers attempting to apprehend him. However, his lack of suitable clothing, food and water led to his surrender.

Students are not the only threats. Here are three examples:

  1. One instructor who had been vocal against the institution’s leadership brought in a gun case to the facility. When challenged by security the instructor consented to search the case, which did not contain a firearm but contained a musical instrument. This became a platform for the instructor’s diatribe against IHE leadership. The instructor attempted to “bait” security personnel to conduct additional “out of the ordinary” searches of other containers he brought on campus. The employment of the instructor was terminated based on this behavior. One of the key components of the termination was comments made on social media.
  2. Another faculty member was critical of the administration and protested the required purchase of parking permits to park on campus. The professor was instructed multiple times not to park on campus without a parking permit. This order was defied, and his car was “booted.” To show his disdain, the professor left his vehicle for weeks until finally the vehicle was declared abandoned. Social media was used to “blast” the administration of the institution over the parking dispute. The vehicle was towed as abandoned. The concern from the law enforcement standpoint and behavioral intervention team (BIT) was public records showed multiple arrests for DUI and other related substance abuse incidents. This worried officers and BIT members as such behavior can lead to loss of inhibitions and potential violence. The professor decided to tender his resignation and claimed his vehicle after paying the tow bill. The parking tickets were dismissed to avoid further contact with the individual.
  3. Students complained about a professor’s moodiness, forgetfulness and erratic behavior. The issue was in the process of review by the BIT when the chief law enforcement officer happened to encounter the professor on an elevator at the facility. The professor had to ask the chief what floor her office was on and then was unsure of how to exit the elevator. With this information, the BIT contacted the CEO of the facility who requested EMS who evaluated and transported the professor to a hospital. The professor was discovered to have early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and retired immediately.

In each circumstance, the use of a single reporting point, behavioral intervention team and supportive leadership, along with communication from students, staff, faculty and the examination of social media, played a role in the detection and prevention of incidents. An integrated approach with multiple information sources is required for such a system to work.


Police1's guide to active shooter prevention, disruption & response

This special edition outlines how city officials, law enforcement, community leaders and parents can develop strategies to address the threat of school shootings in their community.


Colonel Jim Smith, MSS, NRP, FABCHS, CPC, CLEE, is the public safety director for the Cottonwood Police Department in Cottonwood, Alabama. He has more than 45 years of experience in public safety and has worked for a large metropolitan agency as captain and executive assistant to the police chief to public safety director for a small rural agency.

He has written several textbooks including “Tactical Medicine Essentials” (coauthor, endorsed by the American College of Emergency Physicians),"Crisis Management for Law Enforcement,” both in their second edition. He also produced the fourth edition of “Brodie’s Bombs and Bombings.”

He is an APOSTC-certified law enforcement executive and certified police chief and graduate of the University of Southern California with a master’s degree in safety. A prolific writer, he has published dozens of peer-reviewed articles in an assortment of journals. He teaches for Troy University as an adjunct instructor and for the University of Phoenix online as an instructor. Smith continues to teach emergency medical technology and tactical medicine through several institutions.