Two Students Plot High School Massacre – Stopped By Police

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“This incident reminds us that early identification of students exhibiting troubling behaviors is the best defense against school violence.”

-Superintendent Alex Cherniss, San Marino Unified School District

At Firestorm, we emphasize the importance of identifying a risk before a crisis occurs. The Firestorm Behavioral Risk Threat Assessment (BeRThA) strategy stresses the need to recognize irregular and abnormal behaviors to prevent crises. This type of monitoring proved vital for one California school district this week.

Two South Pasadena High School students were arrested Monday for making violent threats to their school. The two males, both unidentified, were plotting to shoot three teachers and “as many students as possible,” according to the Associated Press.

Police recovered evidence indicating the two boys were researching rifles, submachine guns, bombs and explosives. Authorities were tipped off last Thursday by school officials and the students were under surveillance thereafter. Although the suspects obtained no weapons, an elaborate plot was created with specific ‘target’ names.

Adequate evidence was collected to serve warrants at the boys’ homes Monday. A judge immediately signed the search warrant indicating the threats were “very viable.” While one suspect peacefully surrendered, the other resisted arrest; police knocked down the front door taking the suspect into custody as he tried to flee. The two were arrested on conspiracy and criminal threats. Officials confiscated the suspects’ computers as evidence.

South Pasadena police Sgt. Brian Solinsky noted the incident was “a prime example of school officials recognizing suspicious behavior. It was this information that helped prevent a horrific tragedy.”

Detectives monitored the two students around-the-clock since the first threat emerged, including online activity on an un-named social media website, and surveillance footage.

The South Pasadena Police Department (SPPD) released a statement via Nixle just before 7:30 p.m. Monday describing the events. Shortly after, Superintendent of the school district, Geoff Yantz, notified parents through email. Yantz assured parents that the two suspects were in custody and “the police have the situation under control.” The image below is the email posted on the South Pasadena High School Parent Teacher Student Association Facebook page. SPHS announcement

In a press conference Tuesday morning, South Pasadena Police Chief, Arthur Miller, released new details that included the students’ ages. The 16 and 17-year-old “confirmed very cold-heartedly in the investigation” that they were planning a shooting at the school.

More information will be available after the case is taken to the district attorney. The FBI is assisting the SPPD with computer forensics in relation to the incident.

In January, the SPPD worked with local schools on “active shooter” drills. In March, a full-fledged drill was conducted. Miller believes the awareness created from the practice “saved lives” this week.

The suspects were set to start their senior year at South Pasadena High School on Thursday, but now are being held at a juvenile facility. Police wanted to ensure the arrests came before the start of the year, although they found no evidence of a date for a planned attack. Extra security will be provided for the beginning of the school year. During the press conference, Miller stated “I want there to be a sense of safety in our community,” in regard to the precautionary measures.

The school is located in a community of 25,000, six miles from downtown Los Angeles.

Previous Threats This Week

The South Pasadena event came shortly after another California student made threats via Instagram. A 15-year-old Santa Clarita Valley resident was arrested Sunday, August 17 after threatening to shoot students at area schools. The threat read:

“to the people who live in the SCV area, there will be a huge *expletive* shooting soon and a lot of you *expletive* are going to die.”

Related posts contained images of guns and dead bodies.

According to Deputy Joshua Dubin, “many of the posts that were made contained hateful-type messages – racist, sexist threats to students – and that’s what immediately got deputies involved.” Over 25 calls flooded the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station regarding the posts Saturday night.

Instagram post

The teen was arrested after being served a search warrant at his home. No weapons were found at the home of the suspect, but Sheriff’s Sgt. Tim Vander Leek said they are “confident that we do have the individual that is responsible for this.”

After further investigation, Dubin announced at a news conference that the suspect “actually had no intention of carrying out these threats,” and they were posted to get a reaction from his friends. It did not appear as if the teen had access to the weapons because they were stock images obtained online, according to L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Brenda Cambra.

The teen immediately became remorseful of his actions and told authorities he “messed up.” The Instagram account has since been deactivated and the social media site has helped with the investigation.

Although the suspect was taken into custody, community members were hesitant to send their children to school Monday morning. “I cannot risk having my children go in at the assumption that it may or may not be a hoax,” stated Jennifer Rosario to KTLA. “Especially with everything that’s happened across America, you don’t know.”

At a news conference, officials stated extra security protocols were planned for local schools Monday in order to ensure the safety of students and staff.
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Prepare For A Crisis Through A BERTHA

These are real-life and real-time examples of the importance of a Behavioral Threat Risk Assessment, or BeRThA. BeRThA’s goal is to enable a school to intercede before an act of violence occurs.

Acts of violence in schools rarely come as a surprise, and are perpetrated by current and former students, employees, domestic partners of employees or, in rare cases, total strangers.  

  • Virtually all acts are committed by individuals with a relationship of some kind to the school.
  • Virtually all individuals who commit acts of violence exhibit warning signs before doing so.
  • Virtually all individuals who commit acts of violence tell at least one, and sometimes up to three people, before doing so.  

It is critical that schools do all they can to identify those students and employees who need help, and intervene with trained resources that will provide the counseling and case management the individual needs. This raises the likelihood that the gun never comes to school, the sexual assault never occurs or the bullying is stopped before it becomes a problem.  

BERTHA

The BeRThA program assists schools in identifying, assessing, managing and responding to individuals or groups who may pose threats of violence. There are some guiding principles of the BeRThA program:

  • Threat assessment must be part of an overall strategy to reduce school violence. Threat assessment by itself, absent an environment of respect, positive role models, communication between adults and students, conflict management and mediation, peer education, teachers and administrators paying attention to students’ social and emotional needs, as well as their academic needs, is unlikely to have a lasting effect on the problem of targeted school violence.
  • No single person has all the skills required to conduct a behavioral threat assessment and no single person should have the sole responsibility to assess the potential risk of a student or employee. The ‘BeRThA’ program starts with the Board of Education and engages the whole school community. It is designed using best practices and input from hands-on crisis management experience obtained by Firestorm principals and Expert Council Members, as well as the US Secret Service, FBI, Department of Education and other thought leaders on the topic of school and workplace violence.  
  • BeRThA provides school personnel with a wealth of information about behavioral threats as well as the availability of responding resources. For example, a student who turns out to be expressing a low level of threat may still be one with a high level of need for intervention, supervision and mental health services. In the light of prevention, identifying a similar student and empower support services that may help address/resolve his or her problems, should be seen as a positive outcome for all involved.

Every school and business must be prepared for disaster. Is yours? Learn more about BeRThA here and contact Firestorm for more information about obtaining your own BeRThA plan.

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