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Could Santa Fe, Parkland, other school shootings have been prevented?

The school shootings at the high school in Santa Fe, TX last week slammed home a fact that most people from every point of view on the subject refuse to address.  That fact is an unwillingness to believe it can happen to them.  People’s lack of attention to what’s going on around them is the single most important factor into why these shootings continue.

You can argue the pros and cons of owning an assault rifle, why people need extended capacity magazines or about the mental health of the attacker or the need to design better-secured schools.  But most importantly, where is the discussion about all of the red flags that were evident days, weeks even months prior to an attack?

A few weeks ago, the attorney for the Parkland shooter in Florida told the news media “This kid, in his own way, was screaming out in every way the mind knows how to scream out. He did everything, including saying, ‘I want to go and shoot people in school,” I don’t know what you can do more than that to get somebody’s attention.”

As investigators dig down into the Parkland school shooting facts are emerging where school staff members, state agencies, and federal officials missed opportunities to identify that person as a potential mass killer.  Among the growing list of warning signs either detailed by public statements from officials or released public records are the following:

  1. The FBI confirmed that it was given two tips on the attacker’s potential for violence, which the FBI investigated but they were unable to verify who actually posted the video
  2. In 2016 the Florida Department of Children and Family investigated a Snapchat post showing the attacker cutting his arms and were informed that the attacker intended “to go out and buy a gun.”
  3. Investigators dissecting the attacker’s social media accounts post attack have found posts that Broward County Sheriff’s Office described as “very, very disturbing.”
  4. Broward County School District officials say the attacker was reprimanded regularly while a student at the high school and he was eventually expelled.
  5. Since 2016 at least 20 calls for police intervention were made regarding the attacker for a variety of disturbance complaints, including fighting with his mother. In a police report from September 2016, a therapist who went on one of the police calls performed a field assessment (a set of questions and a read of body language) but noted he was “no threat to anyone or himself.”
  6. A classmate of the attacker told a news media outlet that the attacker said, “I swear to God I’ll shoot up this school.” The student did not report the threat to school officials after the attacker apologized and retracted the statement.
  7. Another student said that several classmates reported the attacker several times to school officials for odd behavior. They said, “We did report him, time and time again since he was in middle school, It was no surprise to anyone who knew him to hear he was the shooter.”

In hindsight, after school shootings, it always seems that some if not most of the pre-indicators were present, yet no one saw them.  How do you miss:

  1. Depression and/or withdrawal
  2. Increased severe mood swings
  3. Noticeably unstable, emotional responses
  4. Explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation
  5. Suicidal indications
  6. Comments about ” getting even ” or putting things in order”
  7. Empathy with individuals who commit violence
  8. Development of deep personal grievances or grudges

Predictive Indicators

When the emotional layers of the Santa Fe shooter are peeled back it’s very likely that some of the same types of indicators were present days if not weeks prior to the attack.  Why didn’t somebody connect the dots?  How were the indicators missed?  Where is the database with software that ties school system’s “problem students” with family service investigations that link up to police incident reports?

People always look to official institutions for those hard answers, and they should.  However, the three described institutions each have a different primary mission and a limited similar mission.  That similar mission is predictive critical thinking about what may happen with a “troubled individual.”  Those institutions also have limited resources in people and money.  The reason nobody was connecting the dots before these school shootings using computers and smart software intelligence analysis is that these institutions only share data when enough evidence exists to go to the courts to get the legal approval to address the issue under discussion.

How do you predict something bad will occur with reasonable probability?  The fix begins with being proactive and not reactive. It’s not the gift of prophecy, it’s the state of mind one decides to live in.  Most people think the answer to an attack is dialing 911.  Where does that thought process begin?  In childhood, because we are taught to be polite, don’t stereotype, don’t profile, don’t judge a book by its cover, don’t be paranoid, stop worrying about things you can’t control or if it happens, it happens.  This social re-engineering is designed to suppress those instinctive weapons that kept us safe in prehistoric times.  They say, “it’s not my job.”  That is why the dots fail to be connected and people get hurt or die.

In schools, teachers, counselors, coaches, and students need to understand that if they see or hear something that momentarily makes them think school shootings or something could happen, report it!  No fault, no foul if it comes to nothing.  Many schools have anonymous tip lines that get information immediately to the school resource officer.  At work, human resources officers are the people on the ground who can spot troublesome behaviors long before a deadly situation develops. It is critical to educate every school staff member and each company employee with the knowledge that they can and must be vigilant and help prevent these types of incidents.

The Sentinel Stands Watch

Any person who has ever trained under me regarding personal security has heard me say that the best security weapon to have fine-tuned and honed like an edged weapon is their situational awareness.   When people ask me how to be street-smart I say “People are not suspicious, but activity is.”  I always talk about developing a “Predator Mindset” and to disregard their prey mentality (please see earlier blogs).  I now add a third mental weapon to our arsenal of defense.  Utilizing our “Sentinel Traits” as a predictive tool to see the potential of an event, including school shootings, based on certain key indicators.  The definition of a sentinel is “a soldier or guard whose job is to stand to and keep watch for any type of threat.” If our predator radar is askew, our “sentinel traits” are turned off.

Typically, prior to something happening there are a number of signals that should sound a silent alarm to those who are paying attention. The key is to ensure that every staff member has been trained to spot the psychological profile of a potentially dangerous person. Over the years subject matter experts have done several studies and have compiled a list of behaviors that are deemed indicators and should raise the red flag.  Let’s see what we really observe using those “sentinel traits.”


  1. Anti-Social Behavior- People with anti-social personalities do not get along with others and the signs range from an introverted unwillingness to mix with people to bullying or vocal harassment. Isolation, inappropriate remarks, disrespect for authority, or pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior.


  1. Vindictiveness- Potentially dangerous people tend to display an inclination toward vindictiveness. They blame others for their problems and express a desire for revenge which can manifest itself in mild terms or in provocative statements. People who consistently hold grudges or celebrate the suffering of other people requires closer assessment.


  1. Victim Mentality- Most people take responsibility for their mistakes. Others blame everyone around them and have a paranoid belief that they are the victims of a world determined to be their enemy. They can’t admit to a mistake, they never apologize or can be presumed wrong. They have a tendency to shirk accountability while holding others responsible and they complain about their problems rather than trying to resolve them.


  1. Extreme Paranoia- Someone who suffers from extreme paranoia tends to have a persecution complex, an irrational belief that others are trying to cause them harm. They are convinced a conspiracy exists (big or small) to undermine their every step or to destroy their life. These types of people are inherently mistrustful and perpetually wary. and they will claim they have been treated unfairly (which in fact, may be true).


  1. Persistent Anger- A history of perpetual aggravation, anger and rage is a telling indicator. Uncontrolled anger is a red flag for potential violence, especially those who seethe in furious anger and consistently throw temper tantrums, swearing, yelling, crying, sulking, or using overly emotional language to describe their frustrations.


  1. Violent Thoughts- With violent thoughts, the only clues we have are the statements people make and the behavior they display. If someone hears of a mass shooting in the news and jokes or celebrates it, say something to somebody and follow-up. If someone jokes about hurting other people in any way, they may be giving a valuable glimpse into their mind. A threat overt or implied should never be ignored.


  1. Controlling Personality- Control issues are a sign and is a common symptom of a potentially menacing personality. People who are labeled “control freaks” hate any small change in their lives and any alteration of routine makes them uneasy or angry. They must command their environment at all times or become emotionally unbalanced. They often believe they are superior to others and will impose their opinion on those around them. If they feel they have lost control, they may try to regain their power through violence.


  1. Strange Behavior- Strange behavior comes in many shapes, sizes, and forms. Some are particularly alarming like inappropriate remarks, socially unacceptable habits, odd comings and goings, or an alteration in appearance. Any of these can give the impression that something just isn’t right.  It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly causes uneasiness in others, but experts attribute it to a lack of social skills.


  1. Unhealthy Habits- Unhealthy habits tend to indicate someone is going through a period of emotional turmoil. Watch for those who neglect their personal hygiene, look disheveled, suffer from strange illnesses, and are habitually late to school, work or group meetings. Of course, substance abuse may be one of the issues, but the two are not inconsistent with people who are planning on doing harm to others.

Spot The Hidden Gun

The U.S. Secret Service has a short mental assessment drill they do when scanning a crowd for a possible threat to the VIP they are protecting.

  1. Determine the persons strong side, are they right or left handed?
  2. Look for abnormal body movement – weapons are heavy and can cause a drag in clothing along with a bulge.
  3. Clothing- does it fit the season, is it overly baggy, are they constantly pulling their pants up or shirt or jacket down to cover a weapon, etc.
  4. Behavioral clusters- do they seem nervous, do their arms swing out while walking to avoid a weapon concealed on their waistline and do consistently perform a touch check to ensure the weapon is still present?

To enhance situational awareness, take the time to understand the baseline of typical activities at your school, work or organizational activities.  This analysis will help you quickly identify discerning behavior and allow you to best position yourself prior to an attack.  Over time and using some simple observational skills, everyday people can see one or more of these pre-event indicators.  Recognizing those red flags will increase the possibility of preventing anyone getting hurt and a helping mentally disturbed person find the peace they need with good medical treatment.

The Gift of Fear

Gavin de Becker wrote in his excellent book “The Gift of Fear” about understanding why things happen. The book is 21 years old and yet it has applications in today’s mass shooting events.  Mr. de Becker says to ask the following questions of a person of questionable intent:

  1. Does the person feel justified in taking violent action?
  2. Does the person feel there are alternatives to violence?
  3. Is the person concerned about the consequences of a violent action?
  4. Does the person have the ability to carry out an attack?

Based on Mr. de Beckers experience, if one or more elements of these indicators are present; Justification, Alternatives, Consequences, Ability (JACA), a formal threat assessment is needed. JACA is a simple layman’s snapshot and does not replace a professional threat assessment from a school counselor or mental health expert.

Preventing the Next One

No true profile exists for an active shooter. but the prior to an event the behavior patterns and indicators are there:

  1. A recent acquisition or new access to multiple weapons
  2. A recent escalation in target practice and weapons training
  3. A new and inappropriate interest in explosives
  4. Intense fascination with previous shootings or mass attacks
  5. Resistance and overreaction to changes in policies and procedures
  6. Unsolicited comments about dangerous weapons and violent crimes

Prediction can seem daunting when a mass killing is framed only within the context of school shootings.  However, let’s think about the last two school shootings at Parkland in Florida and in Santa Fe in Texas.  Let’s say you were a groundskeeper or a front office worker and you observed those boys reflecting one or more of the above indicators, what else could you do to calm your worry or plant your red flag?  Imagine seeing some of the above indicators in their social media post weeks or months before the first shot is fired. Despite how they are portrayed by the news media, active shooter attacks do not start with the first shot.  When contemplating the best way to deal with an active shooter, the following questions need to be asked:

  1. If I do nothing and hope nothing happens, what then?
  2. If I do nothing and it does happen, how do I explain it?
  3. If I do something and nothing happens, what then?
  4. If I do something and it happens, how are the people I tried to protect?

As I outlined above, the simple fact that people refuse to believe school shootings won’t happen to them creates an ostrich head in the sand way of thinking.  We at TRG will always be polite, but wary, we will not stereotype, but we will assess, and may not profile, but we shall study.  Regarding paranoia, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to get you.


“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”         – Mark Twain