I want you to imagine, for a second, the unimaginable. Your child is murdered by one of their peers in the hallway of their school. As a grieving parent, you begin to ask the most important question of all: not “Why?”, but “How?” How could this have happened? As you ask this question, your nightmare only gets worse. You learn about warning sign after warning sign the assailant displayed to school officials, mental health professionals and law enforcement — not vague hints at the potential for violence, but clear statements and actions showing the attacker intended to harm himself or others. Yet nothing was done. The result was the most avoidable school shooting in our nation’s history. Worse yet, we are still failing to learn from these events in order to avoid the next tragedy.
“They killed my daughter”
“How could this have happened?” This was the question Andrew Pollack asked after his daughter Meadow, an 18 year-old high school senior, was murdered on February 14, 2018. Gunned down in the hallway as she fought to gain access to a safe space, Meadow lost her life along with 16 other students and an additional 17 were wounded in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. As Pollack began to seek answers to his question, he was stonewalled at every turn. Seeking the truth for his daughter and other victims, Pollack did something even he was not expecting: He became a witness for the monster who had murdered his daughter.
In their book, Why Meadow Died, Pollack and co-author Max Eden expose the truth behind the failures that led to the Valentine’s Day Massacre in Parkland. As a means of protecting themselves from liability and blame, Broward County Public Schools and the Broward Sheriff’s Office refused to reveal any prior knowledge that the attacker was a threat to the safety of students or staff. The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects the rights of student education records, including disciplinary records. Seeing no other way to seek true justice for his daughter, Pollack made a deal with the defendant’s defense team: Grant him access to all of the assailant’s student, mental health and law enforcement records, and he would share the truth with the world.
What was revealed should make every parent’s stomach turn. Records dating back to the assailant’s time in primary school show an obsession with war, military apparel, guns and first-person-shooter video games. The defendant had been involved in multiple fights at school and brought knives and ammunition to campus without consequence, and law enforcement had been called to his home a total of 45 times. Multiple family members, friends, peers and educators had made reports to the school or law enforcement about his suicidal and homicidal ideations. The assailant himself admitted directly or in writing his desire to harm himself or others. This included social media posts, sent to the FBI, about wanting to become a “professional school shooter.” School officials were aware the assailant had mutilated and killed animals, some of which he brought to school. Some teachers refused to have the attacker in their classroom or to be alone with him out of fear. Leading up to the attack, the attacker experienced multiple life stressors, including the death of his mother, being kicked out of school and breaking up with his girlfriend. The assailant also had direct access to firearms, with friends or family members reporting their concerns to the Sheriff’s Office. Despite all of these warning signs and the fact that school officials, mental health workers and law enforcement were all aware of these circumstances, nothing was done. As Andrew Pollack somberly stated, “I can’t even say he killed my daughter. They killed my daughter.”
Know better, do better
Parkland is a horrendous tragedy, not just in the loss of life, but in the loss of opportunity to provide off-ramps for an offender who was clearly on a path toward violence. Four years later, many states and school districts have failed to take significant actions in averting school violence. The good news is that there are models and resources available that can help prevent the next Parkland.
In its Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence (2018), the National Threat Assessment Center outlines eight steps educational facilities should take in developing a comprehensive targeted violence prevention plan:
- Establish a multidisciplinary threat assessment team.
- Define prohibited and concerning behaviors.
- Create a central reporting mechanism./li>
- Determine the threshold for law enforcement intervention.
- Establish assessment procedures.
- Develop risk management options./li>
- Create and promote safe school climates./li>
- Conduct training for all stakeholders.
Where states or districts do not mandate the establishment of behavioral intervention or threat assessment teams, schools should partner with local law enforcement, social workers and mental health professionals to create their own.
The U.S. Secret Service, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, has created outlines that can be used as a starting point when establishing threat assessment programs. Grants are available through multiple resources to assist schools and law enforcement partners in acquiring systems that allow threat assessment teams to collect reports, collaborate remotely, identify at-risk students, assign intervention strategies and provide accountability. One of the most robust and fluid systems available is the Threat Assessment and Planning Program, created by PM AM Corporation. Educators and law enforcement should exploit every asset available in order to identify and support students at risk of harming themselves or others.
While these are extremely rare events, in the past two decades school-targeted attacks have cost the lives of more students while on campus than all natural disasters combined. Although not all tragedies can be avoided, there is clear evidence of the effectiveness of violence prevention programs. The most important thing to recognize is that in most cases, potential offenders share bits and pieces of information through multiple sources. While any piece of information may be discounted, it is the totality of information that brings to light the potential for catastrophe.
Attackers tell peers of their plans or leak suggestions about their suicidal or homicidal ideations on social media. Family and friends are aware of stressors potential offenders are experiencing, while educators observe changes in academic performance and attitudes. Law enforcement may have previous contact with an assailant, knowledge of negative influencers or events at the student’s home, or the capability to determine potential access to firearms. Counselors and psychiatrists may be aware of mental health challenges the student is having or provide insights into the words of actions of a subject in comparison to normal adolescent behavior.
As a society, we are out of excuses. School behavioral intervention or threat assessment teams shouldn’t be a recommendation; they should be a mandate. The only way to effectively support students in crisis is to give schools the means to collect information and establish multidisciplinary teams capable of identifying at-risk students and delivering appropriate interventions. Now that we know better, it’s time we do better.
Morgan Ballis is the director of Strategic Planning and Training for Campus Safety Alliance, a K–12 emergency management consulting firm. As a law enforcement trainer and nationally recognized expert in K–12 campus violence preparedness, he has had the opportunity to train more than 20,000 law enforcement officers, educators and students in active assailant response. Contact him at Morgan@Campus-Safety.us or follow him on Twitter: @CampusSafetyDad.