Targeted violence is the purposeful, deliberate selection of a target prior to a violent attack. The target can be a specific individual or individuals, a class or category of individuals, or an institution, such as a school. The US Secret Service and Department of Education Safe School Initiative studied 37 incidents of targeted school-based attacks, committed by 41 individuals over a 25-year period from 1974-2000 and published their findings in a widely cited report in 2002.
Motives for Targeted Violence
Common motives for targeted violence are revenge for a grievance, a desire to solve a problem that is perceived as unbearable, or a desire to kill or be killed. In the majority of the incidents studied by the Safe School Initiative, most attackers were having trouble dealing with a significant loss or personal failure, and felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack. The Safe School Initiative also found that others knew about the attacker’s plans or ideas to attack and that they exhibited concerning behavior prior to the attack. Knowledge about an attacker’s plans or ideas often comes from the attacker’s communication of a threat or from behavior indicating that the attacker poses a threat.
Threat Assessment and Types of Threats
Threat assessment is a process of identifying, assessing, and managing threats against a target with the goal of preventing an attack before it occurs. Threat assessment focuses not only on those who have made threats, but also on those who pose a threat.
A threat can be expressed verbally or in writing, and conveys an individual’s intent to inflict harm or damage. Not all threats are equivalent, and they should be evaluated for content, context, and the circumstances in which they occur. For example, is the person in a creative writing class and the assignment requires a detailed description of some event or activity? What are the actual words that were used or the actions that were engaged in? What is the relationship between the person of concern and the target? The majority of attackers studied by the Safe Schools Initiative did not threaten their targets directly, but all threats should be assessed thoroughly and responded to expeditiously.
There are four types of threats:
1. Direct Threat: A specific, straightforward statement of intent to do harm toward a specific target – e.g., I’m going to shoot up the gym on Friday after school when all of the jocks are at practice.”
2. Indirect Threat: A vague, unclear, or ambiguous threat, target, or motivation. “It would be so easy to kill somebody if I wanted to.”
3. Veiled Threat: Implies violence and leaves the interpretation of the message open to the hearer. “We would be better off without him. I’m surprised nobody has ever gone Aurora Theater on him.”
4. Conditional Threat: Warns that certain violence will happen unless specific conditions or demands are met. “If I don’t get on the team, I’m going to shoot the coach.”
Because each threat means something different, we should avoid “one size fits all approaches” to threats and zero-tolerance policies, which can cause us to over-react to some threats or under-react to others. It is important to select appropriate and proportional responses to each threat.
Differentiating Between Making a Threat and Posing a Threat
Making a threat usually involves telling someone about one’s intent to attack. According to the Safe School Initiative Report, most school attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to the attack, therefore it is important to evaluate when a person poses a threat even if they have not made a threat.
Posing a threat means engaging in behaviors that indicate intent, planning, or preparation for an attack. A person of concern may have also made a direct threat but may not have the opportunity to carry it out or take preparatory steps. The person posing a threat may provide details such as identity of the victim, motives, means, weapon, date, time, or place. In other words, they provide concrete information about plans or preparations. The presence of specific, plausible details is critical for evaluating when someone poses a threat and signals that it is time to engage your threat assessment or behavioral intervention team.
The FBI offers these reminders about differentiating between making a threat and posing a threat:
- Some persons who make threats ultimately pose a threat
- Some persons who pose a threat never make threats
- Many persons who make threats do not pose a threat
Advanced training in threat assessment and practice using tabletop exercises are helpful in learning how to differentiate between someone who makes a threat and someone who poses a threat.
Fein, R., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., & Reddy, M. (2004). Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. US Secret Service and US Department of Education: Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/threatassessmentguide.pdf
US Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation (2016). Making Prevention a Reality: Identifying, Assessing, and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks. US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/making-prevention-a-reality.pdf/view
Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W., (2002). The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington,D.C. Retrieved from https://www.secretservice.gov/data/protection/ntac/ssi_final_report.pdf
Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clarke is a clinical psychologist and retired psychology professor who has lived in Denver, Colorado for almost two decades. In the aftermath of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, Dr. Clarke was instrumental in developing and facilitating active shooter response and violence prevention training for all faculty and staff at Community College of Aurora (CCA). Dr. Clarke currently serves on CCA’s Behavioral Intervention Team and consults in the areas of mental health, classroom management, and safety.