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School safety has become an enormous industry that encompasses architectural design, bullet-proof glass, special locks for classroom doors, metal detectors, lockdown drills, and a whole lot more. But sometimes preventing a school attack can be as simple as making a phone call. 

Kelly’s 5:00 p.m. shift at a San Jose drugstore began in typical fashion. The eighteen-year-old said hi to a coworker, who told her it had been a boring day. Forty-five minutes later she began processing photographs that a young man had dropped off the previous day. He was scheduled to pick up the prints at 6:05 p.m.—just twenty minutes later.

Kelly was startled by close-ups of the man’s fierce and angry face, and by image after image of guns, bombs, and bullets. 

Frightened, but not sure what to do, she showed the photos to a coworker and her manager. They didn’t know what to do either. Kelly then called her father, who was a police officer. He told her to call 911. When the man showed up at 6:15 p.m., the police were waiting for him. They arrested him and then searched his home, where they found five guns, sixty bombs, and two thousand rounds of ammunition. They also discovered his writings praising the Columbine killers, detailed plans for his own rampage attack, and a note to himself that said, “Kill supervisors at Campus Center; Kill all at library; Kill fast.”

The date of his planned attack? The next morning.

This incident highlights the importance of the saying, “see something, say something.” Or to express it another way: “We’re all on duty.” Whether we work in mental health, education, or law enforcement, we are all on duty. But more than that: whoever we are, we have a role to play in keeping our communities safe.

Here’s another example:

On Long Island, New York, a McDonald’s customer found a notebook in the parking lot. Curious, she opened the notebook and was startled to read, “I will start a chain of terrorism in the world,” and “Take everyone down, turn the guns on the cop, take out myself. Perfecto.” She turned the notebook in to the local police, who investigated and discovered that two students had made a video about their plans to use an Uzi automatic rifle, an AK-47, and five pounds of explosives in a rampage attack at their high school. They were stopped because someone paid attention to a notebook in a parking lot and took action.

A massacre was prevented because somebody made a phone call in response to finding a notebook in a parking lot. In another case, a woman sitting in the bleachers at a high school soccer game overheard two boys talking about their plans to commit an attack that would be bigger than Columbine. She took their photos with her cell phone and sent the pictures to the school resource officer. The two boys were identified and questioned; they admitted to their plans and were taken into custody.

In a different situation, a teenager’s grandmother found his journal where he detailed his attack plans. She also found a semi-automatic rifle under his bed. It was not an easy call to make, but she reported her grandson to the police, thereby saving the lives of others, as well as keeping her grandson from being killed or spending his life in prison. 

There are numerous such examples of ordinary people taking simple steps that had extraordinary consequences. Though these examples did not involve students, students are the people who most commonly encounter warning signs of impending school shootings. To increase the odds of preventing mass attacks at our schools and elsewhere, we need to educate everyone in our communities about warning signs and how to report them. 

What constitutes a warning sign? They can be explicit statements about committing an attack, warnings to friends to stay away from school so they don’t get hurt, invitations to peers to join an attack, references to something bad that is going to happen at school, comments that a school shooting or other attack was “cool,” and so on. 

A common problem is that no matter how explicit the warning signs are, they are not taken seriously. People may think they know what a school shooter looks like—the stereotype of the misfit, outcast, or loner, the so-called loser with no friends and nothing going for him. In reality, this does not fit most school shooters. In fact, some perpetrators have been quite involved in school, played sports, had friends, dated, and did well in school. When warning signs come from a student who seems to be doing fine, the danger is likely to be ignored. 

For example, there was a situation at a high school where administrators became aware of an alleged plot among several students to commit a mass attack at the school. When the administrators learned who the students were, they reacted with disbelief. One administrator said:

They weren’t isolated. . . They did not fit what we thought was the profile for the kind of student that would plan something like this. They were engaged in school. They were involved in a sport. They seemed to have a large base of friends. They even had some popularity amongst the student body.

Another administrator commented that “They looked like normal kids” and pointed out that they were on the wrestling team. Consider the multiple assumptions in these comments: that school shooters somehow do not look like “normal kids;” that if students have friends, are active in school, and play sports, that they cannot pose a danger. Fortunately, in this case, the evidence of the impending attack became so overwhelming that it could not be ignored. If the students had done a better job of covering their tracks, however, we would have been reading about this school in the news. 

Thus, we not only need to educate people about what constitutes a warning sign, but also talk to people about the danger of stereotypes about school shooters and the barriers that often keep people from reporting their observations of concerning behavior. Though there are multiple reasons that people do not report safety concerns, perhaps the most common is simple disbelief:

  • “I thought he was bragging, like always. I didn’t think he was going to hurt anybody really.”
  • “I thought he was just talking big and bad.”
  • “Nobody took him seriously. I mean, a lot of kids might say stuff like that, but they never do it.”
  • “He laughed when he said it. You couldn’t really take him serious.”
  • “I was a pretty good friend of his and I knew that he was a jokester and that he’d say something like that just to get attention, but I never thought he’d do it.”
  • “I didn’t take it seriously at all. None of us did. I never thought he was like that.”

These comments highlight the fact that when students make explicit announcements of their attacks, all too often they are not believed. Thus, the problem with getting people to report explicit warning signs is that the statements are so obvious that people assume that they are not real threats. 

Alternatively, some warning signs are less explicit; the problem in these cases is that people typically do not read between the lines or ask questions to determine what was meant. Examples of non-explicit warning signs include comments about “something bad” that is going to happen, or that there is going to be an “evil day,” or references to doing something “stupid” that will result in death or imprisonment. Thus, a major task in preventing violence is educating people to recognize warning signs and encouraging them to report what they hear.  

Finally, schools need to have staff who are trained in conducting threat assessments. Having warning signs reported to school administrators will have little impact if schools do not know how to properly investigate the warning signs to determine the level of risk, and know how to respond effectively. 

The only way to prevent an attack from happening is to identify the warning signs and intervene before a shooter arrives at a school armed and ready to kill. The whole process, however, depends on people coming forward and passing along what they have seen or heard. Thus, the foundation of preventing violent attacks is recognizing that we are all on duty—always. 

Peter Langman, Ph.DPeter Langman, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on school shooters. He has spoken at FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC, the FBI National Academy in Quantico, the National Counterterrorism Center, and for five years was a researcher with the National Threat Assessment Center of the United States Secret Service. His latest book is “Warning Signs: Identifying School Shooters Before They Strike.” He is the Director of Research and School Safety Training for Drift Net, LLC. His website is  

Dr. Langman will be the featured presenter at KidsPeace’s 26th National Conference, “Keeping Our Kids Safe: Addressing Gun Violence on a Systems and Individual Level,” Wednesday, October 9, 2024, at the Donley Therapeutic Education Center on KidsPeace’s Orchard Hills Campus in Orefield, PA. For more information and to register for the conference, please visit .