Secret Service rolls out new ways to identify and stop student attackers

The Secret Service announced practices to prevent a targeted school attack.

July 12, 2018, 9:20 AM

The Secret Service – known for protecting the president – is now using their expertise to protect schools in the wake of a spate of deadly mass shootings.

The new guidelines on enhancing school safety are based on research from the U.S. Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center. Lina Alathari, the author of the operational guide, told ABC News that although guns were used the majority of the time in the crimes studied, the report also includes attacks carried out using a "lethal weapon," such as a knife, gun or explosives.

After the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, the Secret Service approached the Department of Education and offered to use the same methods they use to study assassins to study school shooters.

"No one had really studied school shooters from an operational preventive perspective before," Alathari says.

The purpose of the report was to show a "blueprint" for how schools can establish threat assessment programs in their schools so that they are identifying students who may be expressing distress or engaging in concerning behavior, she said.

Students are evacuated by police out of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooting on Feb. 14, 2018.
Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images

In the operational guide, the Secret Service says there is no profile for a student attacker.

It could be male or female.

It could be a good student or someone who struggles academically.

It could be someone who is a loner, or well liked.

The Secret Service also says that schools should establish a threat assessment team, which they say is "the first step" in developing a prevention plan.

That team, which can be for just one school or an entire school district, should be diverse.

Police move students into a different area of Great Mills High School, the scene of a shooting, March 20, 2018 in Great Mills, Md.
Alex Brandon/AP

"Teams should include personnel from a variety of disciplines within the school community, including teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, school resource officers, mental health professionals, and school administrators," the report says. It also recommends that the team meets on a regular basis and have a clear leader.

"Everyone brings a different perspective to how they interpret someone's behavior," Alathari said.

According to Alathari, having a school resource officer on the team is helpful in identifying potential risk and they are often the first ones to respond on the scene.

And in most cases, those officers have relationships with the students.

"It's very important to have this collaboration with law enforcement because not only can they assist when there is an imminent safety risk but they can assist in other ways as well," Alathari said. "A lot of students respond well to school resource officers. They bond with them, sometimes they serve as coaches on teams, sometimes they co-teach classes; a lot of students feel comfortable having that presence in their schools."

In addition, determining the threshold of when to involve law enforcement in an incident is crucial.

For example, in Colorado during the 2016-17 school year, most incidents submitted on the Colorado Safe2Tell program, a tip line dealt with "suicide, bullying, drugs, cutting (self-harm), and depression."

Most of those incidents can be dealt with in school with counselors and other support staff.

Creating a central reporting mechanism is also important to the process of stopping student attackers, according to the report.

"Schools can establish one or more reporting mechanisms, such as an online form posted on the school website, a dedicated email address or phone number, smartphone application platforms, or another mechanism that is accessible for a particular school community," the report said.

Many of the applications schools use resemble nationwide criminal reporting apps.

The team should also put in place procedures – which includes who conducts interviews with troubled students, classmates and teachers.

They should also have an evaluation process which determines which behaviors are unacceptable and warrant immediate intervention — ranging from threatening others, violence, bringing a weapon to school, bullying.

If there is an immediate threat, however, like a threat to harm others or themselves, it is important to report it to someone as soon as possible.

"Reports regarding student behaviors involving weapons, threats of violence, physical violence, or concerns about an individual’s safety should immediately be reported to local law enforcement," the report said.

The operational guide also says to be alert to whether a student has readily available access to weapons.

For example, authorities said that the school shooter who killed 10 and injured 13 in Santa Fe, Texas used his father's weapon to carry out the attack. In fact, Alathari said that the majority of the weapons in many of the school shootings were acquired from the home.