Social media leakage before school shootings [Guest Post]

Warning: Videos within this post contain violent and/or disturbing material and may be upsetting to some audiences.

“Leakage” can mean many things, and prompt many visuals. However, in the world of threat assessment, a new meaning is emerging – one that refers to something much more ominous. Before a mass shooting or revenge rampage, subjects often express their intention to do harm, or “leak” their plans to a third party. The leak does not always serve as a direct threat to their target, but is a comment to associates. For example, Charles Andrew Williams told others that he was going to “pull a Columbine” before he killed two and wounded 13 others at Santana High School in Santee, California. school_zone_drug_free_gun_smaller

With the proliferation of social media, young people are expressing their thoughts, grievances, interests, and behavior online as a part of their identity and their very being. For those that may intend harm to others, it is surprisingly not uncommon for the shooter to not only post their homicidal thoughts, but even direct warnings. When Bobby Gladden shot a classmate in the back on the first day of school in February 2012 in Baltimore, anyone who saw his post that morning would have seen it coming. 

These public statements are actually opportunities for prevention. If bystanders can recognize these warning signs for what they are, these red flags won’t be just discoveries made after the fact, but can be the stimulus to initiate an intervention. Perhaps one positive result of the extent of the mass media coverage of these events is increased awareness of mass shootings, leading people to report concerns to authority. In April, 2011, at Ottumwa High School in Iowa, D.A. Hendrickson made similar threats on his Facebook page, but law enforcement was informed before he ever took action. It may never be known if he would actually “blow up the school”, as he was arrested for making “arsonist threats” and that potential disaster was averted.

So how could a school administrator use this to stop the next school shooting? A primary issue to consider is the manner of discovery. Given recent revelations regarding the NSA domestic surveillance program, there are those who may be opposed to school administrators engaging in the mass surveillance of the social media lives of their students to attempt to “profile” for the next shooter. However, in most previous cases, it was a bystander, another student, or parent that noticed the posting and alerted authorities. Many schools have tight communities and this “crowd-sourcing” approach provides good coverage of emerging issues among the student population. The one obstacle is resistance to disclosure. Would the friend of a guy threatening this ex-girlfriend in an open chat tell an authority or his parents? While there is a whole other discussion necessary about his response to his friend’s behavior, the best way to encourage disclosure is to show support for the person concerned and safety for all.

Administration can also start reviewing a student’s (or employee’s) online activity after an on campus incident or threat. Knowing what sites they are active in, being on their contact list, or at least knowing their usernames are important to finding information. Three things to look for are direct or veiled threats (as illustrated in the Baltimore High School shooting), capability, and general state of mind. In terms of capability, they may show their knowledge about improvised explosives on a forum or post videos of themselves with weapons, as in the Kauhajoki School shooting. In this case, Matti Saari posted videos prompting a police visit, but the following day, multiple students were murdered at a culinary school in Finland before Saari took his own life. When trying to determine the status of someone under investigation, general state of mind is often openly displayed in their postings. While Jared Loughner went on to commit the shootings that included Rep. Giffords in Arizona, his previous rambling and paranoid video of himself wandering his school, Pima Community College, lead to his dismissal.

Social Media warnings is just another facet of the complex and difficult subject of rampage shootings. While there have been editorial postings in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggesting the monitoring of campus internet access to threatening material, the concern over school shootings must be weighed with very low likelihood of one occurring at your campus. However, if there is a student or subject that does come on the security radar, spending a little time investigating their postings online can provide administration vital information about their intentions, ability, and stability.

About the Author

Johnny_LeeJohnny Lee is the Director of Peace@Work, an agency dedicated to the prevention of violence in and through the workplace. He is also the CEO of ePanicButton, LLC which provides a desktop software duress alarm program.

His previous experience includes his role as the Training Director for the UNC-Chapel Hill Injury Prevention Research Center’s PREVENT program, delivering a national violence prevention training program. He was previously also the Workplace Violence Specialist for the Office of State Personnel in Raleigh, North Carolina. His responsibilities included consulting state agencies on the development and revision of their workplace violence programs. Previously, as the Victim Services Coordinator for the Asheville Police Department, he delivered assistance to victims from the crime scene.

Professional association memberships includes his current role as the Treasurer for the ASIS Birmingham Chapter, member of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals and of the Society for Police & Criminal Psychology. Formally, he was Chair of the Victim Services Interagency Council of North Carolina and Board Member of the Businesses Continuity Planners of the Carolinas. HRD Press has published his human resources book, Addressing Domestic Violence in the Workplace in 2004.