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Report Calls School Attack Plans Detectable

by Valerie Strauss, Washington Post

Most students who have targeted schools for violence told peers about their intentions in advance, meaning that some future school shootings may be preventable because the planning is detectable, a federal study says.

The analysis of 37 incidents of targeted school violence between 1974 and 2000 concluded it is impossible to develop accurate profiles of potential school shooters because no set of traits describes them all. But there were warning signs of an attack, according to a final report of the study conducted by the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education and released this week.

"In almost every case in this study, attackers behaved in ways that caused others concern," Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige said in a statement. "Many had difficulty coping with a major relationship change or a loss of status among their peers. Many threatened or tried to commit suicide. And many felt desperate, and others knew that."

The analysis also determined that the attackers did not typically act impulsively. In nearly two-thirds of the incidents, more than one person had information about the attack before it occurred. In nearly all cases, the person who knew was a friend, schoolmate or sibling; an adult had information in only two cases.

It is important, the report concluded, for educators, police and other public safety officials to break down barriers that prevent students from telling adults such information and to develop the capacity to evaluate information that might indicate risk of an attack.

Several states have passed laws making it easier for schools to share student information with officials trying to determine whether a student might be planning an attack.

The Department of Education and the Secret Service are completing a publication that will provide school administrators and law enforcement officials with guidance on implementing a threat-assessment approach in schools. Starting this month, the agencies will hold training seminars across the country for officials to learn more about how to identify, assess and manage students who might pose a risk.

A second report on school shooters released yesterday revealed differences in the social context and motivation of offenders in suburban, rural and inner-city schools. The six case studies were conducted by the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council at the request of Congress.

In the suburban and rural incidents, the offenders felt no physical threat from the students they targeted, it said. Incidents in inner-city schools involved interpersonal disputes in which the shooters believed their lives were in danger.

The report also said that because it is impossible to develop profiles of would-be shooters, more effective methods of keeping firearms away from adolescents must be found.

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