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The School Shooter: Assessing Risk

By Elaine Cassel

On September 6, 2000, the FBI announced publication of a risk assessment model targeted at identifying potential school-age killers. The result of two years of study,

The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective
analyzes risk factors for violence in several categories, including individual personality traits and family, school, and social dynamics, when the student has actually threatened violence, whether verbally ("I am going to blow up this school someday.") or nonverbally (such as an ominous videotape). For instance, a student who has threatened to blow up the school and who has a history of behavioral problems at school, is alienated from peers, has a dysfunctional relationship with parents, has a history of angry outbursts at school, and has access to weapons would be considered a risk for potential violence. This risk would increase to an immediate threat of violence if the student uttered a threat to blow up the school on a particular day and/or time. Other less specific utterances, such as a comment to a peer," You are a dead man," would be assessed in light of other facts that would help determine whether the student was making an actual threat to harm the person or merely making a bullying or even a humorous comment.

A panel consisting of expert representatives from law enforcement, medicine, psychology, and criminology, including psychologists James Gabardine, Dewey Cornell, and Robert Hare and well-known forensic Psychiatrist Park Dietz, wrote the report. They analyzed eighteen suburban and rural school shootings from recent years and developed an assessment model based upon those incidents. The model does not address specific threats faced by urban schools, such as gang-related violence. The report also provides guidelines for rank ordering threat and risk and a protocol for notifying parents and law enforcement authorities.

The report warned about the misconception, derived from saturated media coverage, that school violence is widespread and rampant. Actually, school violence is down from the early 1990s, but the few highly publicized incidents have brought the problem more into the public eye.

The report expressed skepticism about the computerized assessment instrument known as Mosaic (Mosaic for Assessment of Student Threats). Mosaic is based upon a prospective model of profiling in which individual scores in a certain range are interpreted as representing a propensity for violence. Many schoolteachers and administrators in the 25 pilot institutions that tested Mosaic felt that some of the risk factors could apply to most students at some time or another.

The FBI agreed, and said that the potential for misuse far outweighed Mosaic's possible benefits. However, these misgivings have not deterred the developer from stepping up marketing efforts targeted at schools and law enforcement agencies.

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