Days after his 14-year-old daughter Alaina was murdered in her English class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last year, Ryan Petty did what a lot of us do when we’re searching for answers.
He asked Google.
After he typed, “What can be done to stop the next school shooting?” into the search box, one result in particular caught his eye: “If You Want to Know How to Stop School Shootings, Ask the Secret Service.”
So that’s what he did. A phone call to the federal agency’s switchboard eventually led him to Lina Alathari, chief of the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, and nearly 20 years of research on preventing targeted violence against everything from public figures and government facilities to public spaces and schools.
Petty was relieved to learn that someone was studying the circumstances and motives behind attacks on schools and offering police and school leaders actionable advice on what they can do to stop it.
“But I was also stunned and dismayed that the insights gathered by the NTAC over the years were not used to save my daughter Alaina,” Petty said Wednesday.
Petty vowed to change that, and that brought him, Alathari and two other fathers of Parkland victims to Rosemont this week to speak with about 800 school officials, law enforcement leaders and mental health professionals about the latest information on preventing school attacks.
Thing in common
That research is in the new report “Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence.”
Described as the most comprehensive examination of school violence ever conducted by a federal agency, the report details findings from 41 deadly school attacks from 2008 to 2017.
It found there are no typical perpetrators of school violence. They’re not exclusively male and can be young or old, popular or an outcast, an academic success or struggling underachiever. Their targets are just as varied: large schools and small, rural and suburban, rich and poor.
But every event had one crucial factor in common: They all were preventable.
Prevention means not only recognizing the behavior that hints at future violence, but then taking steps to assess the threat and intervene if necessary, Alathari said. In each of the 41 cases studied, that didn’t happen.
“Had the tools the NTAC developed been used appropriately before (the Parkland shootings), my lovely daughter and 16 other souls would still be here today,” said Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter, Gina, was among the students killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, attack. “Our community would still be whole instead of broken.”
Although the study found no useful profile of a perpetrator, it details some common denominators in motive, home life, psychological background and warning signs.
Most are acting on a grievance — usually against fellow students, but sometimes involving teachers or school staff members.
“In this study, 80% of the attackers experienced bullying, and for more than half it was persistent bullying,” said Steven Driscoll, lead social science research specialist for the center.
Nearly all were experiencing something negative at home, like parental divorce or separation, substance abuse by family members, or domestic abuse. Most also experienced psychological or behavioral problems, ranging from depression and suicidal thoughts to defiance of authority and prior contact with law enforcement.
And, perhaps most importantly, most made prior threats and broadcast their intentions beforehand. Yet, less than half those threats resulted in a significant response from school officials or law enforcement, and often there was no response at all, Driscoll said.
‘It will save lives’
The Secret Service and Parkland fathers were out to change that Wednesday, sharing information on how to spot a troubled person and determine if that person might be a threat before an attack occurs. The Secret Service last year sent more than 40,000 schools nationwide a guide on how to set up a multidisciplinary threat assessment program and take the necessary steps to prevent a tragedy.
Although the Stoneman Douglas shootings weren’t part of the recent Secret Service study, it, like many of those 41 attacks, was preceded by a host of missed opportunities to intervene.
The Parkland fathers Wednesday urged schools and communities around Chicago to learn from their experiences.
“It could have made all the difference in the world to our families, to those on campus that day and our community,” Petty said. “It will mean one less father has to turn to Google for answers. And it will save lives.”
To read the full Secret Service report, visit www.secretservice.gov/data/protection/ntac/usss-analysis-of-targeted-school-violence.pdf.