Why Behavioral Risk Threat Assessment Matters
On February 14th, 2018, a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSDHS) in Parkland, Florida entered the building armed with an assault rifle and multiple rounds of ammunition. The student, previously expelled due to disciplinary issues, used a school safety feature – the fire alarm – to lure victims into the school’s hallway before he opened fire, killing 17 and injuring at least a dozen others.
Once again, people around the country are asking, ‘how could this happen again? When will this stop?’
Waiting for the next deadly act is not the answer. We must act before the weapon enters the building and before additional innocent lives are lost.
How many times after an incident of violence do we find ourselves saying, ‘There were warning sign’ and ‘we should have known’? This way of thinking must change. We cannot afford to lose more innocent students, teachers, and community members because we think ‘it won’t happen here.’
The Red Flags
As in many other cases, the gunman exhibited multiple behaviors of concern prior to the deadly shooting at MSDHS.
According to the Associated Press, “Students and neighbors portrayed Cruz [the gunman] as an often strange and hostile figure who threatened others, talked about killing animals, and posed with guns in disturbing photos on social media.
“I think everyone had in their minds if anybody was going to do it, it was going to be him,” 17-year-old Dakota Mutchler said after Cruz was identified as the gunman in the nation’s deadliest school shooting in more than five years.”
In a report by the Miami Herold, a teacher at the school stated the gunman may have been a potential threat before the shooting and the school emailed staff warning that the perpetrator should not be on campus with a backpack.
The gunman was expelled from the school in 2017 for disciplinary issues, but unfortunately, expulsion does not resolve the issue.
Additionally, the FBI was contacted twice prior to the shooting. According to a Reuters report, “The Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Friday it had failed to act on a tip warning that the man now accused of killing 17 people at a Florida high school possessed a gun, the desire to kill and the potential to commit a school shooting… a person described as someone close to accused gunman Nikolas Cruz, 19, called an FBI tip line on Jan. 5, weeks before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, to report concerns about him, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.” They were also contacted when a YouTube user (with the same name as the gunman) posted “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” on a video.
The Focus of Safety
Along with sound security protocol, training and practice, identifying warning signs that an individual is on a path of violence must be in existence at all times.
Firestorm Chief Security Officer, Jason Russell, expounds: “Warning signs can vary from interest in previous attacks and gathering of weapons, to confiding plans to carry out an attack, either anonymously via discussion boards and social websites, to face-to-face conversations with others.”
Behaviors to observe may include fascination with first-shooter games, weapons, gathering of ammunition, incidents of bullying, and these behaviors may be combined with the individual exhibiting feelings of persecution or a grudge against those who are perceived to have “wronged” the individual.
In this instance, during the period of time that the shooter was a student of the target school, there was behavioral oversight; however, what intelligence tools were active after the student was expelled? Firestorm EVP of Professional Services, Wendy Ruffcorn, observes: “Of all times to observe behavior, whether with a terminated employee or a student that has been under behavioral observation, ceasing observation at the time of separation is counter to best practices. The period of separation and months afterward are as important – if not more-so – to predicting escalating behaviors of concern specifically regarding retaliation against those deemed responsible for the separation.”
Because a student or person shows one of the mentioned behaviors of concern, however, does not mean they will commit an act of violence.
The answer is not in looking for one warning sign, but rather to view all observations in the aggregate, which makes the process of gathering that information – the puzzle pieces – even more critical. One observer may have one of the piece of the puzzle and second observer another. It is by collecting all observations and understanding patterns of behavior that creates the opportunity to intervene.
Sample behaviors of concern may include, but are not limited to:
- Blaming others and identifying others whom they believe to be the cause of their problems
- Sensing privacy is being invaded
- Fascination with past violent criminals
- Fascination with weapons
- Gathering of weapons
- Bringing weapons to work or school
- Gathering of ammunition
- Filing complaints/ grievances
- Inflexible-difficulty coping with change
- Loner/avoidant personality
- Issuing conditional threats (“If I don’t get what I want…”)
- Making intimidating comments about weapons
We Must Act Now
Waiting is not an answer. This year we have witnessed multiple school shootings. We have violence, bullying, sexual molestation, suicide, and substance abuse in our organizations.
There is an epidemic of violence. There is a cure. We have the means to limit the spread and reverse the trend. The Firestorm Behavioral Risk Threat Assessment (BERTHA®) program trains people to identify behaviors of concern and report issues, before they escalate.
Although the central focus of discussion has been on mass shootings recently, a cohesive Behavioral Risk Threat Assessment program is overarching. It teaches people how to identify behaviors of concern that not only lead to violence (this includes the use of ALL deadly weapons – guns, vehicles, bombs, knives, and other weapons), but also helps identify cases of bullying, self-harm, sexual molestation, and additional inappropriate behaviors. It’s proactive as opposed to reactive.
Our goal is to protect ALL persons from ALL crises, both involving and not involving deadly weapons. The solution to keeping our communities safe has multiple layers. We must work together to prevent tragedies.
If not now, when do we act? The call to action is here again and again. Let’s not wait for the next crisis; the human cost is too great to wait.