1. Archive

Secret Service tutors schools

Rumors ran rampant through Sickles High School last spring that it would be "the next Columbine." Students at the northwest Hillsborough school alternately spread the gossip and cringed from the surreality of it.

Could a student engineer a mass killing, like the one in Littleton, Colo., at Sickles? Certainly no school is immune.

With the help of the Secret Service, the agency charged with identifying potential shooters and protecting the most powerful people in the world, schools have a better chance of avoiding this brand of "targeted violence."

About 500 school administrators, guidance counselors and resource officers from central Florida came to Gaither High School Tuesday to hear a five-hour presentation on school safety crafted by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education.

"We don't pretend to have all the answers, but we have some ideas," said Randy Borum, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida and a member of the Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center.

Several years ago, the Secret Service studied all the people in the past 50 years who targeted or attacked a public figure or celebrity. That project helped improve the agency's approach to identifying threats.

The service also did a similar study to learn more about the patterns of planning, thinking and behavior that preceded school shootings. In essence, the Secret Service applied everything it knew about protecting presidents to protecting schoolchildren and teachers.

Borum said the "Safe School Initiative" report uses "the same approach we used to study assassination behavior."

Staffers from the National Threat Assessment Center studied 37 school shootings _ involving 41 attackers _ that occurred since 1974. Information focused on each attacker's development of a plan, target selection, motivation, communications about his ideas, how he got the weapons, as well as the demographic and background information on each shooter.

Researchers determined that the one trait common to student killers is that they were all boys. Another finding: Students don't "just snap."

The Secret Service study resulted in six major findings about what drives such attacks:

The attacks are not impulsive, spontaneous or random. "These kids do not just snap," Borum said.

Attackers often tell at least one person, and usually more, about the plan. "Kids tell other people, and typically it's other kids," Borum said.

There is no accurate or useful "profile" of a school shooter.

Incidents are frequently over before law enforcement arrives.

Most attackers act out in some manner before the actual violent outburst, usually raising cause for concern.

Bullying played a key role in more than two-thirds of the cases.

For Hillsborough Deputy Steve Lewis, the resource officer at Sickles High School, the presentation was a reminder of the things he'd seen during the turbulence last year. "We had some kids who displayed some of those attributes," Lewis said. "Kids who were crying out for help."