Early Warning Signs of Potential School Gun Violence

Published: June 5, 2024

One thing we must understand when it comes to identifying a person considering violence, such as an active shooter attack on a school or business: The people who do it very rarely wake up on a random Tuesday and decide they will kill their classmates or co-workers.

What we find from the investigations after an attack is that the perpetrator often thinks about this activity for weeks, if not months, before they actually act out. It is during this “thinking it over” time frame that they often express themselves in their writings, journals, drawings, and social media posts that can give those around them clues to their violent intent. If we can identify this intent, we can intervene to prevent violence.

Leakage is a term describing the things a person planning violence often does — and that we can often see — as they prepare themselves for the attack. Their intent or plans may leak out intentionally or unintentionally through social media comments, pictures, drawings, journaling, or other forms of expression. We may see they have written a manifesto or a written record of their frustrations, anger, hatred, or descriptions of abuses they are facing — real or imagined. These manifestos often include tiered plans on how to lash out at the person or people they hold responsible for their suffering.

Leakage develops as the person falls deeper and deeper into their thoughts and plans for violence. These thoughts become ever-present and can overtake their lives. In an effort to vent these feelings, they can reveal their inner thoughts.

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Look for Signs of ‘Leakage’ to Identify Potential Danger

Some of the leakage we look for or see can include statements that sound scary or dangerous. The individual may make veiled threats to a person or group of people, post pictures of themselves in their battle dress, display guns or other weapons, or write stories of violence with them as the attacker.

A change of clothing style can also be a sign of potential violence. The person might begin to wear things associated with a violent incident such as battle gear. Think of how a SWAT team dresses. They wear battle dress uniforms (BDUs), gun belts, camouflage, and military- or police-style boots. All of these items have legitimate use in law enforcement and the military, but the average citizen does not wear such things for style or trends. These clothing items have a specific purpose that we all understand from news reports of military action and television shows: You wear those things when you are going to battle.

This is something that many of the adult and juvenile active killers have done. The Columbine killers wore BDUs, gun belts, boots, and gloves, as did the Parkland killer. The adult killer of police officers and civilians at El Centro College in Dallas in 2016 wore the same things. More recently, we saw the Covenant school shooter in Nashville wearing the same kinds of apparel. Dressing up for the action is often part of the killer’s activity, and it is a red flag if we pay attention to it.

The lesson here is simple: If you have a student or co-worker who starts wearing this kind of clothing or posting social media pictures of themselves dressed like this, we must investigate.

Pay Attention to Student Drawings and Doodles

The expressions of students contemplating carrying out violence often take the form of cartoon doodles or very detailed drawings, depending on their skill level. These kinds of drawings often depict them in the first-person perspective. They draw themselves into the cartoons as the person committing the violence or punishing the people they consider bad or evil.

Shortly after I trained some school staff members on this topic, I had two teachers reach out to me with student drawings. The first one depicted a very active scene with a central theme. The teacher took the picture from the student. Here is that picture:

This picture immediately got my attention and for good reason. The wording itself is disturbing. “Kill List” was the original title of the drawing, but the word “List” was scratched out and replaced with “Plan.” To properly interpret this drawing, we have to see the evolution of the ideas and thoughts of the person drawing this picture.

In its original version, he makes a statement about what the drawing is: a kill list. But over time, as his thoughts evolved and he was drawn deeper into his suffering, he updated the drawing and changed the wording to “Kill Plan.”

This change tells me, the investigator, that the person was dwelling on this concept. The kill list carried power, and he was trying to develop a way to express his feelings. When he changed it to “Kill Plan,” that told me he had advanced his ideas from a mere expression of anger, hatred, and victimization to a plan of action to fight back against those he believed were hurting him.

Looking closer, we can see that after changing his statement to a plan of action, he asks “How?” How would he do the things he was considering, assuaging his negative feelings or emotions? His answer is “a gun.”

And finally, he declares “No More!” His actions were solidified and his plan was created. This tells me that these thoughts and ideas were percolating, developing, and evolving in his mind over time and his burgeoning plan was now taking tangible shape.

I visited the school and asked the principal to find the student and bring him to the office, with the caveat that he should be separated from any backpack or bag he may have with him. This was done, and the student sat before us in the office. He was a freshman boy.

How the Student Interview Unfolded

Once the young man was seated, the principal explained why he was in the office and who I was. We produced the picture, and I asked him if he drew it. He said he did. I asked him to explain what the picture was trying to say. He looked down and shook his head saying, “I’m not sure.”

I prodded him gently, saying I believed he knew what he was expressing and that it was OK to tell me. I told him it looked like he was sad and angry. He nodded his head. I had to build up to what I knew the picture was saying, so I started with ancillary parts of the picture. I pointed to the cage depicted in the top left corner of the drawing and what looked like four people in the cage. He had labeled them as ‘Misery,’ ‘Hate,’ ‘Sue,’ and ‘Sick.’ I asked him who these people were. He had been a part of a months-long class project, and the people in the cage were kids on his team for the project.

The young man was not a bullied kid but he was not well-liked. He was considered different by other students, a loner. He dressed differently and he was more solitary than other students. He was excluded from many activities for these reasons.

I asked him why they were named Misery, Hate, Sue, and Sick. He said ‘Misery’ was a name he gave to one of the girls on the team who made him feel miserable about himself. The person he labeled as ‘Hate’ was another young man who treated him badly. He said ‘Sue’ was not a girl’s real name. She was the least offensive team member who went along with the poor treatment, so he wanted her to be sued and go to jail. And finally, ‘Sick’ was another young man he felt was sick in the head for the horrible things he said to him about his clothes, his family, and other personal things.

I then turned my attention to the other characters depicted in the picture, the ones on the bottom of the page. These appeared to show young people being shot with a handgun, were crossed out, and some were saying “No,” as if they were terrified. I asked him who they were, and he said they were the kids in school he hated for how they made him feel, including his project team.

I then turned my attention to the central character in the drawing: a stick figure of a young male. This character was larger than the others and centrally placed. Notably, the eyes of this character were crossed out and closed. I interpret this as a clear expression of a dead person.

I asked the young man who the person in the middle was. He began to tear up and said, “That’s me.” I ask if he was dead in this picture, and he said, “Yes. After I kill them, I’m going to kill myself, I can’t take it anymore.”

Teachers, Campus Staff Must Be Trained to Recognize Warning Signs

This picture was filled with information about the young man’s state of mind, his stresses, his thought process, his intentions, and his plan of action. The investigator who can interpret this information can take action to prevent tragedy.

The teacher who saw this picture was moved to take action because she was trained to understand it had important meaning. She told me that if she had not had the training and understanding about what drawings can tell us, she might have just taken it and ripped it up, advising the boy not to draw such ugly things anymore.

We also determined the student had access to guns and he told me he was going to act on it sooner rather than later. When pushed he said, “Maybe two weeks.” The young man was removed from the school that very day for psychological evaluation. His parents were not aware of his feelings, intentions, or suicidal ideations. They were shocked.

He did not return to the school but I’ve been told he is doing very well. He no longer has a desire to hurt anyone, including himself. He got the psychiatric help he needed, and in the 10 years since he drew this picture and harbored thoughts of homicide and self-destruction, he has thrived. Education and observation saved his life and his classmates’ lives as well.

Some Drawings Are Just Drawings

While the young man in the first example drew in first person, and the drawing was about him and his plans, the second example different but just as important for police investigators and school personnel to understand.

A short time after I received the first picture, a different teacher in another district sent me another drawing of concern. She was also trained on the topic of interpreting drawings. This teacher said she saw a young man, a high school sophomore, drawing in his notebook. She took the picture and sent me a photo of it. I responded to the school and met with the student and the principal.

Here is the second drawing:

This drawing depicts a young man with an axe attacking the Kool-Aid Guy. The Kool-Aid guy is injured and bleeding out, and his face shows fear, distress, and pain as he says, “Oh No!” The young man depicted in the drawing appears to be smiling.

You can see why the teacher was concerned. It is a violent picture.

When I interviewed this young man, he said he drew the picture. When asked what was happening to the Kool-Aid guy, he said, “That guy is annoying, he breaks through walls yelling ‘Oh Yeah!’ so somebody got sick of it and shut him up.”

I asked him if he was the person with the axe attacking the Kool-Aid guy. The young man smiled and said, “No man, that’s not me. That’s just some dude who’s sick of his nonsense.”

After some other conversations and a review of the young man’s history, it was clear that this picture, while disturbing, was not a threat to anyone — veiled or otherwise. It was simply a cartoon.

This drawing was not in the first person. The attacker was not even the drawer. The injury was not to a person but to a cartoon character. The attacker was smiling. A carton in poor taste, yes, but not a threat.

I spoke to the teacher and thanked her for sending it to me and for paying attention to signs of potential violence. The takeaway here is similar to the first example: With information and knowledge, we can get people to report potential problems or threats so that we can act.

Pay Attention to Journaling, Writing, and Social Media Posts

Journaling and writing can also be expressions of our inner thoughts, concerns, anger, and joys. Many people of all ages journal to keep a record of their lives or activities. What we look at with young people is the time and place of journaling and writing, the topics, and the action that takes place in the writings.

As anyone who deals with children as they grow and mature knows, they can experience the world in different ways at different ages. Little children can draw things that are scary to them. We know that some abused children will draw horrific pictures of the abuse or how it feels to them. These pictures are often the only way they can express these feelings since writing might not be a mastered skill yet.

When an investigator or teacher sees these kinds of pictures, they will often set off alarm bells and initiate an investigation by school personnel, doctors, parents, or guardians. This is appropriate because it is information that tells us something is not right.

In little children under the age of eight or nine, drawing a picture of abuse or sexual organs is not a normal childhood expression. Of course, there can be legitimate reasons why some kids who aren’t victims might draw those things, but we would still investigate because it is out of the ordinary expectations of what young children are experiencing in a normal, healthy life.

We also know that when children are around ages 11 to 15, a young person’s understanding of the world begins to change and expand. This change comes from heightened awareness of the world around them, increased intelligence, exposure to TV, social media, and other outside stimuli of the adult world. At this age, a young person can understand that family members and friends get sick or die for many reasons, including the modern phenomenon of teen suicide, which is on the rise.

When a young person begins to see these things, they will often reflect that in their writing or journaling. They begin to see the dark side of life and can internalize that by drawing dark themes or writing stories with dark themes as a way to deal with this new understanding that the whole world is not as safe as their home. In most cases, young people journaling about dark themes is normal, but it is here that we can also see signs of potential violence growing.

Violent Topics in Writings May Be Indicators of Trouble

Stories about killing or hurting people, first-person or otherwise, can be an indicator of a developing problem or potential danger, attack, or suicide.

When reviewing the writings, journals, and social media posts of anyone, we must look to the essence of what their expressions are about. In some cases, it will be clear, such as the journaling and writing of the Columbine killers. They left detailed journals describing their anger, hatred, and self-doubts, as well as their plans to attack and kill their classmates.

Several years ago, on Long Island, N.Y., a young man was journaling about attacking his school and left the journal behind at a fast-food restaurant. It was found and turned over to the police who intervened and thwarted his planned attack.

And more recently at the Covenant School shooting in Nashville, Tenn., we know the killer had a detailed manifesto describing why they were angry and what they wanted to do. Had someone found this document beforehand, the tragedy might have been prevented.

As for social media posts, many people who harbor feelings of violence will post those feelings or threaten those they dislike. The shooter in the 2007 Virginia Tech attack created and posted a video manifesto. The Parkland school shooter also posted threats and plans on social media. The need to express these negative feelings, threats, and plans is fairly common. We must be aware of them and stay ahead of potentially dangerous acts.

Using digital assets like geo-fencing can also help. With geo-fencing software, organizations can focus on social media posts that contain keywords about violence. Geo-fencing can be targeted to a school property, a business, or an entire town. When the specified keywords appear in a post, notifications are sent to appropriate school officials and authorities. This is usually the school district or the local police. In many cases, they split the cost. Geo-fencing is a solid but underused technology that can help keep our communities safe.

Monitoring journaling and writing might be harder because these forms of expression are more private. However, as law enforcement and school personnel, we should encourage the parents and guardians of our children to review their writings and drawings and provide them with training to recognize the signs of potential trouble.

What Should We Do If We Find a Kill List?

Kill list investigations are often not handled correctly by schools or law enforcement. Many people see a kill list as simply an inappropriate activity by a student — something unpleasant, rude, or scary but not life-threatening. Often, kill lists are destroyed and the student is told not to do it again. There is no proper follow-up with parents or law enforcement. I have seen this happen in real life too many times, even today with our heightened awareness of the dangers of attacks on schools.

When law enforcement is notified, many officers don’t understand the significance. I have seen officers take the list and throw it away, or leave it with the teacher and not follow up. As professionals, we must train our people to treat the kill list very seriously and do the proper follow-up that is needed to save lives.

Here’s a good place to start:

  1. Create a school policy requiring staff training for recognizing potentially dangerous writings, drawings, journaling, or social media posts
  2. Include a requirement that any identified writing, drawing, journaling, or social media post be preserved and kept by the school
  3. Include a provision to ensure local law enforcement is called and responds to the school to conduct a follow-up investigation
  4. Schools should add that any student who creates any potentially violent writings, drawings, journals, or social media posts will have their lockers and backpacks searched (following local and state law for guidance) for weapons or other evidence of potential violence
  5. Create a tip line where a student can report dangers anonymously, and include how the tips will be followed up
  6. Develop a training program for properly investigating threats

These steps can help prevent violence. We have seen many incidents where students have come forward to report potentially violent students, and this reporting has prevented attacks.

Law Enforcement Must Also Be Trained

Law enforcement agencies must also train officers to take kill lists and other threats seriously and investigate them properly. A kill list investigation should include:

  1. Parental notification
  2. An officer’s visit to the student’s home to inquire about weapons
  3. A request for consent to search the student’s room (or a search warrant if probable cause exists)
  4. Taking into custody any evidence at the home or from the school

These may seem like simple things but they can make a huge difference. A kill list is an important red flag. We must all recognize it as such and respond properly.

Joseph Pangaro is a retired police lieutenant from Ocean Township, N.J. and the former director of school safety and security for a large school district in New Jersey. He is a Certified Public Manager (CPM) and the owner and CEO of True Security Design. He can be reached at JPangaro@TrueSecurityDesign.com.

The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine. This article was originally published in 2021, but the practices mentioned still apply today.

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