Movie theater, elementary school, workplace, outdoor concert, night club, house of worship…The list goes on, with the most recent attack being at an outdoor food festival. A common sentiment is, “It could never happen here,” however, targeted violence, in fact, “can happen here.” 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. According to 2018 FBI data on active shooting incidents, the majority of attacks occurred in commerce environments (e.g., businesses, retail/malls), educational institutions, and open space environments.
Contrary to popular belief, offenders do not just “snap.” Targeted violence is premeditated, and planning and preparation can take place over many days, weeks, months, or even years. Because of the predatory and planned nature of targeted violence, very often other people, including bystanders, know about the attacker’s idea or plan to attack. A bystander can be a neighbor, someone on social media, a peer, parent, sibling, coworker, teacher, or community member.
The U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education have published several studies on school-based targeted attacks and prior knowledge. Prior to most school attacks, other people––most often a peer––knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack. Furthermore, in most cases, more than one person knew in advance. A majority of those individuals received the information more than a day before the attack. Some knew specifically what was planned, while others just knew “something big or bad” was going to happen. Knowledge about an attacker’s plans or ideas often comes from the attacker’s communication of a threat or from concerning or dangerous behavior indicating that the attacker poses a threat. Unfortunately, however, most bystanders said nothing.
Why don’t bystanders come forward? In many of the school-based attacks, bystanders did not come forward because they didn’t believe that the threatened attack would actually occur or occur so immediately. They believed, “it could never happen here.” School climate also affected whether bystanders came forward with information related to the threats and influenced their decisions to make a report regarding the threats. For example, students who were reluctant to report concerning behavior or threats indicated that they anticipated a negative response. Some bystanders may also expect no response from the school if they were to come forward or fear retaliation from the would-be attacker.
The term upstander has recently been used in the context of bullying prevention, and is also important in preventing active shooting violence. An upstander does not just stand by and do or say nothing, but rather stands up and takes action by reporting concerning, dangerous, and threatening behavior. “If you see something, say something” is the motto of the upstander.
Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clarke is a clinical psychologist and retired psychology professor with almost three decades of combined experience in mental health, education, threat assessment, and violence prevention. She is a Certified Executive Instructor and Curriculum Author for SSI Guardian, a subsidiary of School Specialty, Inc.