Inside the Secret Service study that analyzed school attack plots

Posted at 1:44 PM, Dec 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-16 14:44:39-05

(WXYZ) — The Secret Service prevents attacks on our President and other high-ranking officials. Could its techniques be used to protect children in our schools? Some think so.

In a report published this spring, the Secret Service analyzed 67 disrupted plots against K-12 schools between 2006 and 2018 and gave advice.

You may have an image of what the work looks like in the Secret Service, agents or body guards protecting our nation's leaders. But much of their work is behind the scenes, going to the homes of people accused of posing a danger and assessing the threat.

National Center for Education Statistics

"They knew by making these statements that the Secret Service would come out and get them help," said William Cousins.

Cousins is CEO of security consultant firm W.J. Cousins and Associates. But before that, he served for 22 years in the Secret Service, assessing threats.

As he learned about what happened at Oxford High, he thought about how he prevented attacks on high ranking officials, by recognizing and connecting hurting people with mental health support.

He says we need to learn as a society how to also do that for children.

"Everybody needs to be educated to see those signs and those warning signals," said Cousins.

In its Averting Targeted School Violence report, the Secret Service identified warning signs or planning behaviors common in school attack plots studied:

  • 85% of plotters made weapons plans, most of them acquiring weapons
  • 73% detailed how they would execute their attacks
  • 57% documented some of their thoughts and intentions, for example in drawings, journals, or manifestos
  • 31% researched prior attacks
  • 16% even attempted to recruit others

Plus, some chose clothing or music for the attack, researched school security or police tactics, practiced on video games featuring school shootings, or prepped a bag for the attack.

The Secret Service found 75% of the 67 plots were detected because plotter communicated plans.

"People are reaching out and telling people they are going to do this," he said.

"I have recognized for a long time there is this code of silence and students don’t want to tell on one another," said Dr. Justin Heinze.

Heinze is a University of Michigan Assistant Professor and Director of the National Center for School SafetyHe says creating a system where students can trust mental health support will be prioritized over punishment could help increase reporting of legitimate concerns.

He says the Secret Service’s methodology is useful, but profiling historically used by the feds can lead to mistakes in the school setting.

"In some ways it does apply to school, but in some ways it is completely different. One thing I can tell you is there is not a profile for a school shooter. Looking over the last 40 years, it is not as if I can say, 'check box, check box, check box, this person is a danger'," said Heinze.

Assistant Research Scientist at the National Center of School Safety Dr. Hsing-Fang Hsieh says threat assessment is one part of a plan. Schools need to improve the school climate, support emotional well being, and communication about threats.

"I like to think about threat assessment as part of the comprehensive school safety strategy," said Dr. Hsieh.

Cousins agrees the solution is holistic.

"We cannot be careless in this. We have to be overly cautious," said Cousins.

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