Behind state efforts to prevent targeted mass shootings
After the massacre of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger visited his alma mater, Carr Elementary, in Dallas, North Carolina. What had once seemed innocuous design choices looked to Cloning like security risks that could be exploited by a gunman: the knee-high windows, the door in the back of classrooms that led to a playground.
“It was built at a time when we didn’t worry about this,” Cloninger told members of the Governor’s Crime Commission last Thursday. “And the majority of our schools are that way still.”
Cloninger’s tour of Carr Elementary was part of his work as a co-chair of a special committee on school shootings. He talked last week about the report he helped put out in 2019, the recommendations he had made that were never acted upon.
There have been many school shootings since Parkland. Among the most horrifying was last May, in which 19 children and two teachers were killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
“I knew after Texas that someone would be saying, ‘We got to do a study, we got to do a study,’” Cloninger said. “We’ve done a study.”
Cloninger and members of the State Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Unit (referred to as BeTA) gave separate presentations to the Governor’s Crime Commission last week about statewide efforts to deter instances of mass violence. Most of the discussions focused on school shootings.
Those who inflict targeted mass violence tend to follow a path, said State Bureau of Investigation Director Bob Schurmeier and Nicole Jones, a psychologist in the BeTA Unit. “These perpetrators, they don’t snap. They decide,” Schurmeier said. “It’s a conscious decision that they’re going to carry out an attack.”
Those who work in the special unit see the escalation of behaviors as a continuum, one in which the aggrieved can move up or down.
“If we can eliminate the grievance and fix their problem, then you know, they’re no longer on the pathway at all,” Schurmeier said, but that’s not always possible, “So we have to work other strategies to try to move them down, or to try to manage or mitigate their risk for violence.”
The pathway most often begins with a grievance, Jones said. “The person starts with this kind of baseline belief that they should be treated a certain way, or the world owes them something, and then they feel slighted,” she said.
Next, the individual starts to think that violence will solve their problem. “They start to fantasize about using violence against the people who have harmed them, or hurt them in some particular way,” Jones said. “And it becomes a coping response.”
Action comes next. They start researching and planning how to inflict violence. “Once behavioral action starts, the time frame actually starts to speed up,” Jones said.
They start preparing. They get the tools and weapons they need to attack. Lastly, they do a “dry run,” in Jones’ words, investigating the site of their intended killing grounds.
“They will go to facilities, they’ll check lock doors, they’ll see if someone will prop a door open for ‘em,” Jones said. “So, they’re really trying to figure out any kinks in the plan where they might be stopped.”
Then, they act.
Jones stressed that the more BeTA officials understand the warning signs and the pathway to targeted violence, the earlier they are likely to intervene and the better their chances of averting a tragedy.
“Our approach to this is to try and garner an understanding of what is driving this individual to want to commit the attack in the first place. Because what we want to do is mitigate the reasons why they would want to end their life or end someone else’s life,” Jones said. “We’re trying to find the things that we can wrap supports around so that they have a purpose to live.”
The work is a combination of efforts from both law enforcement and mental health professionals, said Schurmeier.
“Targeted violence is not a law enforcement issue alone,” Schurmeier said. “It’s a community issue. So, are we engaging mental health? Are we engaging social workers? Are we engaging schools?”
Below are figures discussed at last week’s commission meeting, unless otherwise noted.
184 – number of investigations the Behavioral Threat Assessment Unit has investigated since its inception in 2018
43 – number of cases the BeTA Unit has investigated in 2022
76 – estimated number of cases that Schurmeier expects the BeTA Unit to field this year
50% – percentage of BeTA Unit cases that involve schools
90% – BeTA Unit cases in which suspects are male
4/20/1999 – The day of the Columbine School Shooting. Schurmeier mentioned a recent case investigated by BeTA in which a child admired the boys who shot up the Colorado high school. “That was so long ago, they weren’t even alive when that happened,” Schurmeier said. “But they still are identifying with that.”
28 – number of school shootings across the U.S. so far in 2022, according to Education Week
160% – percentage increase in cases investigated by the BeTA Unit following a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May. “In the short time frame following a mass attack, you have to have concern about something similar in nature, sort of a copycat,” Schurmeier said.
5 – number of people killed, including the gunman, after a rampage at a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June
4 – number of people killed from one family after a shooting in Michigan in July
3 – number of people killed at a shooting in a manufacturing plant in Smithsburg, Maryland, in June
3 – number of people killed in a shooting at a potluck dinner at a church in Alabama in June
7 – number of people shot to death in Highland Park, Illinois, at an Independence Day parade. “This is just a matter of four or five weeks following Uvalde,” Schurmeier said after recounting the other shootings.
0 – number of cases investigated by the BeTA Unit that have thus far led to attacks in North Carolina. “But these attacks are happening all across the country,” Schurmeier said.