The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) has found that the threat assessment and management team is the best strategy for communities to prevent targeted violence. Similar to threat assessment teams, Behavioral Intervention Teams (BITs) respond to reports of concerning or disruptive behavior before a threat occurs and take a more proactive, caring, and preventative approach.
The Importance of Bystanders
Because threat assessment involves gathering and assessing multiple sources of information in context, threat assessment teams and BITs benefit greatly when bystanders report concerning or threatening behavior. A bystander is anyone who is in a position to be aware of risk factors or to observe warning behaviors related to a person of concern. 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, bystanders, 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.
There were also indicators of planning and preparation evident from the majority of the attackers’ behavior prior to the attack, and in many cases, other students were involved in the attack, for example, by encouraging or daring the attacker to carry out his plan or assisting the attacker in securing a weapon. Unfortunately, however, most bystanders said nothing.
According to an FBI report on targeted violence at institutions of higher education (IHEs), concerning behaviors were observed by friends, family, associates, professors, or law enforcement in 31 percent of the incidents that were reviewed, and yet the violent attacks were not prevented. Clearly, there is an important role for bystanders to play in preventing targeted violence at schools and IHEs.
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. 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.
From Bystander to Upstander
The term upstander has recently been used in the context of bullying prevention, and is also important in preventing targeted school-based and campus violence. Many attackers in school-based targeted violence felt bullied. Not every person who is bullied becomes a violent attacker, but recognizing signs of bullying and knowing how to intervene play an important role in the prevention of targeted school violence (and reduce the incidence of bullying in schools).
An upstander does not just stand by and do or say nothing, but rather stands up and takes action or reports concerning, dangerous, or threatening behavior. “If you see [or sense] something, say [or do] something” is the motto of the upstander.
Upstanders are critical to the prevention of bullying and targeted violence and they should be encouraged to report concerning, dangerous, and threatening behaviors no matter how seemingly insignificant they may seem. It is only when all of the pieces of the puzzle are evaluated together that we can effectively assess threats and mitigate risk of violence.
Reporting is more likely when the process is clear, easy, and can be anonymous, and upstanders know that all reports will be handled seriously. Schools can also increase upstander reporting and “break the code of silence” by promoting a climate where students feel comfortable sharing information with adults, developing policies and procedures that address how to report a threat, and providing training for teachers, administrators, students, and others on how to properly respond to information about concerning, dangerous, and threatening behavior.
Schools and IHEs should foster a climate where everyone takes responsibility to be connected to one another and to recognize and report signs of bullying and/or potential violence.
Drysdale, D., Modzeleski, W. & Simons, A. (2010). Campus attacks: Targeted violence affecting institutions of higher education. United States Secret Service, United States Department of Education and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/campus-attacks.pdf
Pollack, W.S.; Modzeleski, W.; Rooney, G.; (2008) Prior knowledge of potential school-based violence: Information students learn may prevent a targeted attack. Washington, DC: U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education. Retrieved from https://rems.ed.gov/docs/DOE_BystanderStudy.pdf
Vossekuil, B., Fein, R. A., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W. (2004). The final report and findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States.
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.