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'Leakage' helps identify school shooters

Date published: 12/19/2012

FORGET PROFILING. When it comes to preventing school shootings, remember this word: Leakage.

"Youths who commit school shootings," writes Peter Langman in Forensic Digest, "typically leave a long trail of signals about what they intend to do." Facebook postings. Tweets. Emails. Text messages. Verbal statements. Writings. Drawings. These warning signals are called "leakage." Alas, they are often dismissed, perhaps because those who see them think the kid in question is too young to commit mass murder. Or he may be seen as a weirdo prone to odd remarks. Or when confronted he may deny serious intent.

But leakage is far more important in spotting a potential school shooter than the clothes a kid wears, the video games he plays, or similar externals. Mr. Langman's study rests on what we know about school shooters, including those at Columbine High. It echoes findings of the FBI and the Secret Service.

A study by the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime concludes, "One response to the pressure for action may be an effort to identify the next shooter by developing a 'profile' of the typical school shooter." But that is shortsighted and may unfairly label nonviolent students. In fact, the U.S. surgeon general found that violent individuals display "remarkable diversity that defies characterization by a single profile."

Leakage analysis is a more effective tool. In 1997 in West Paducah, Ky., Michael Carneal told students that "he was gonna come to school and start shooting people" and that "Monday was the day of reckoning." On that day, the 14-year-old opened fire on a group of praying students at his school, killing three and wounding five. The preamble is similar in other mass murders.

Society may never know if Adam Lanza leaked his intention to commit the Sandy Hook massacre. The only person close to him, his mother, is dead, and he wrecked his hard drive before embarking on his horrible mission.

Even so, all of us should be aware of what our friends, children, and siblings are saying and writing. While threat-filled leakage isn't proof of imminent violence, it justifies an assessment.