Schools need systems to spot troubled kids: experts

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Strategies put together by the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education after the 1999 Columbine shootings might help schools detect and act on clues ahead of violent massacres like this week’s Virginia Tech shooting, experts said on Friday.

The tragedy at Virginia Tech, they said, underscores the need for an early warning system that school officials, students and faculty could use to report troubling behavior and potentially head off deadly acts of violence.

Cho Seung-Hui, the 23-year-old Virginia Tech gunman, left some pretty clear warning signs, mental health experts said, but those details were never pieced together until after he killed 32 people and took his own life.

“We may not always be able to find the needle in a haystack of troubled people, but we certainly can design systems to respond more appropriately to those who are known to be troubled and needing help,” said Randy Borum, a psychologist at the Florida Mental Health Institute and one of the authors of the 2002 report about school safety.

That report -- Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates -- was based on a system devised by the U.S. Secret Service to identify people who might attack public figures such as the president of the United States.

It was modified to address school shootings, particularly after Columbine, and offers a model for detecting potential threats in schools. Being attuned to warning signs and having a centralized place for reporting that information can help reduce risks, Borum said in a telephone interview.

The 2002 report found that incidents of targeted violence in school were “rarely impulsive.” Most attacks, it found, were planned out in advance with planning behavior that could often be observed.

“Prior to most attacks, other children knew that the attack was to occur,” the report reads.

But most students and many faculty members do not know where to turn when they come across disturbing behavior.

“There’s no systematic way for pieces of the puzzle to come together. This is a major factor in my view of why school shootings look so foreseeable after the fact,” Borum said.

“It’s because a lot of people knew pieces of information but nobody communicated with each other. After the fact, you’ve got it all ... and everybody says, ‘How could this have happened?’” he added.

“Everybody just thinks about their own little node.” And the problem is not just limited to schools.

“Look at the government post 9-11,” he said. “Everybody was saying, “Gosh, if only those systems talked to each other.’”

With a little training, school faculty, deans and student resident advisers could be taught to recognize simple warning signs that could help identify potential threats, said Alan Lipman, director Center for the Study of Violence at Georgetown University in Washington.

He said schools should put in place a kind of crisis hotline that students, faculty and others could use as a clearinghouse for such concerns.

“With someone like Cho, there are such clear warning signs that they really are the kind of things even non-health professionals ... can spot,” Lipman said.