Are School Massacres Preventable?


Fourteen years ago, President Bill Clinton convened a White House Conference on School Safety. The purpose was to identify the causes of school and community violence, as well as to identify strategies for improving school safety.

As a newly elected district attorney, I was invited to participate in the conference.

Throughout the conference and for months after that, the participants spent a great deal of time debating access to guns, target hardening and availability of community mental health services.

As we mourn the senseless tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, guns, target hardening and mental health are once again front and center.

It wasn't long ago that a gunman opened fire in the cafeteria of Chardon High School near Cleveland. The alleged gunman, 17-year-old T.J. Lane, killed three students and wounded two others.

At a news conference shortly after Lane’s initial hearing, Geauga County Prosecutor David Joyce said the defendant is “someone who’s not well.”

Joyce continued, “[He said he] did not know the students but chose them randomly.”

In the wake of the carnage at Sandy Hook, a relative of Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, told ABC News that he was “obviously not well.”

He was also described as troubled: “[Adam] was not connected with the other kids.”

After the rash of school shootings in the late 1990s that resulted in the White House Conference and culminated with the Columbine massacre, the U.S Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center conducted a detailed 14-month analysis of 37 school shootings.

The assessment, by and large, found that schools are the safest place that students spend time during the course of a day.

That said, the assessment made some significant findings in terms of preventing future mass attacks. Incidents are rarely impulsive. The attacks are often the result of meticulous planning.

According to news reports, the Sandy Hook killer was wearing dark clothing, a mask, and a bulletproof vest, and was carrying three guns—a Glock and a Sig Sauer(both handguns), and an AR-15 rifle.

In addition, most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the attack that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.

Jeff Kaas, author of Columbine: A True Crime Story, wrote this summer in the Washington Post that 81 percent of school shooters tell someone about their plans.

An attack involving time-consuming preparation, and a planner who is talking about his lethal intentions, lends itself to being detected and prevented, if those close to the planner—teachers, administrators and staff—know what to look for.

Target hardening and emergency response strategies are important components to minimize, or even deter, an attack. Intelligence is essential to preventing one.

Training and education are keys to prevention. Teachers, administrators and staff need to understand the dynamics between mental health issues, peer relationships and assessment of risk.

Suspicious conduct, indirect threats, even alarming expressions in school assignments need to be documented. Information must be shared so that a coherent snapshot can be created of a potentially volatile situation.

The accumulation of intelligence can and must be done without violating a student's civil rights, and in compliance with FERPA and other state and federal regulations.

Educators need to foster relationships with students built on trust and confidentiality. A student who is uncomfortable with another student's conduct, or rhetoric, or who is concerned with that student's mental health should feel confident that he or she can seek the appropriate help and guidance from faculty, administration or staff.

School districts need to collect, document and share.

Schools should establish fusion coordinators, “Intel officers,” who can synthesize documented activity occurring in school, outside of school and on social networks. Teachers, administrators and staff should have regular roundtable discussions about unusual behavior, threats, bullying and social isolation of students.

Intelligence has been cultivated and used effectively in this country's anti-terrorism efforts.School leaders should not ignore what has been gleaned from the detailed analysis of school tragedies around the country.

An intelligence model might not only help prevent a violent rampage, but may assist school districts more effectively reach out to students who need support, counseling or more specific interventions.

Matthew T. Mangino, of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C., is the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pennsylvania and former member of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino). He welcomes comments from readers.

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