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 Spotsylvania County Deputy Andy Frank visits with Zechaniah Smith (left) and Emari Parker (right) from Battlefield Elementary School during lunch Thursday. Local officials are reviewing security in wake of Connecticut shootings.
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Date published: 1/6/2013


In 1966, Charles Whitman told a psychiatrist that he had violent fantasies involving the bell tower at the University of Texas-Austin campus. Five months later, Whitman climbed that tower with a cache of weapons and opened fire, killing 16 people.

Since that massacre, there have been nearly 100 school shootings across America, and nearly all have one thing in common: The perpetrator gave hints before the attack.

School-safety experts refer to these hints as leakage, small warning signs that a violent episode is imminent. Often, these warning signs are ignored.

But while schools wrestle with safety proposals such as providing guards, reconfiguring entrances and arming teachers, retired FBI profiler Mary Ellen O'Toole said that the community at large needs to take steps to recognize the warning signs and to know how to respond.

"You want to keep it from even getting to the point of somebody deciding they're going to do this," said O'Toole, who lives in Stafford County. "These are not impulsive events. There are warning signs along the way."

O'Toole studied school shootings extensively as a profiler for the FBI's famed behavioral analysis unit. She studied cases where the shooter made it through a metal detector and where an armed officer was on campus at the time of the shooting.

She said that many school shooters are "mission-oriented," meaning that once they gear up, little will deter them from their rampages. And so O'Toole advocates for school-safety discussions to go deeper than building and personnel plans.

"Its not just having the officer at the front door," she said. "That's a wonderful thing. But with a mission-oriented shooter you need to know before that person leaves their home. That behavior begins before the event--it could go back for years."

She recommends that schools have teams of teachers, psychologists, social workers and law-enforcement officers that know how to spot the signs and what to do when they see them.

O'Toole also thinks everyone in the community should know the warning signs of a potential school shooter. (See list at right for the warning signs.) But she cautions that these signs are not a profile.

Students shouldn't be suspended simply for writing about violence, and every teen who expresses an interest in guns isn't a potential school shooter, O'Toole said.

That is why training of educators, law enforcement officers and mental health providers should include methods of threat assessment, and an idea of which experts to call when there is a threat.

O'Toole has trained many school systems to set up such multidisciplinary teams throughout the country. She said that many school systems are starting to implement these teams and get training from her or other sources.

She hasn't trained any teams in area schools, but Stafford County schools did implement similar teams after a school-safety consultant recommended them in 2006.

O'Toole predicts that most schools will soon have teams trained to spot the warning signs of a shooter.

"It's pretty sad that they have to be so aware," O'Toole said. "But it is a new normal."

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973
Email: aumble@freelancestar.com


Here are signs to look for, according to Mary Ellen O'Toole, a retired FBI profiler who has studied school shootings:

Evidence that someone is preparing for violence, such as buying weapons or spending large amounts of time practicing with weapons.

Photos or videos of the person with guns or other weapons.

Threats against specific targets.

Expressing a hatred toward society or toward a more specific target.

A recurring preoccupation with violence.

A dramatic change in behavior.

An unusual interest in school shootings or other public incidents of violence.