Threat Assessments: The Sandy Hook Commemoration and What We’ve Learned

Time and time again, studies have shown that behavioral characteristics are key to determining if a student may become violent.

Threat Assessments: The Sandy Hook Commemoration and What We’ve Learned

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Note: 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.

On the 10th commemoration of the horrendous attack at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the painful topic of school shooters, threats and violence were raised again in America. Since that attack, more violence of this nature has touched almost every facet of American life – schools, workplaces, parades, concerts, and even the halls of Congress. Studies have been conducted in order to try to understand this horrible phenomenon and find ways to prevent it.

Not too long ago, Paul Pelosi, husband to former House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, suffered a heinous attack in his home. The assailant, in his underwear and carrying a hammer, broke into the Pelosi home in the upscale Presidio Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. The suspect shouted, “Where’s Nancy?” while in the home and stated, among other things, that “he would let her go,” but if she “lied,” he vowed to break “her kneecaps,” according to the criminal affidavit. He said he was sure that Nancy Pelosi would not have disclosed the “truth.”

The perpetrator’s target was clear and sparked renewed concerns about a rise in violence towards elected officials by individuals who often displayed threatening behaviors. The Secret Service, which routinely conducts threat assessments, has been examining this type of violence since the establishment of its National Threat Assessment Center in the late 1990s. That work has become a part of its protective methodology and informs its protective strategy and tactics. Those assessments and the studies performed by the National Threat Assessment Center key in on behavioral characteristics that become a predictable pattern or pathway towards an act of targeted violence.

In a 2015 study titled “Attacks on Federal Government 2001-2013,” the Secret Service reviewed attacks against the federal government and federal officials. The study included the attack against former Representative Gabby Giffords, among others, and found several behavior indicators that predicated an attackers’ propensity to become violent. The findings included:

Finding 1

All but one of the offenders examined in the study exhibited concerning behavior prior to their attacks. Nearly two-thirds elicited concern from others about the risk they posed to their own safety or the safety of others due to concerning behaviors, fixations, and mental health histories.

It’s been widely reported that the Pelosi attacker had online rants that included 9/11 and 2020 election conspiracies. He also allegedly thought he was “Jesus” and had a significant substance abuse issue which contributed to his mental health crisis.

Finding 2

Many of the attackers in the Secret Service study also experienced one or more mental health symptoms, including paranoia, depression, delusions, suicidal thoughts, and disorganized or odd thinking and/or behavior. For just under one-quarter of the offenders, these symptoms influenced their motives in some way.

The perpetrator in the Pelosi attack “filled a blog a week before the incident with delusional thoughts, including that an invisible fairy attacked an acquaintance and sometimes appeared to him in the form of a bird.” In October, he published over 100 posts. While each post loads, a reader briefly glimpses an image of a person wearing a giant inflatable unicorn costume, superimposed against a night sky.

Finding 3

The study also documented that over three-quarters of the offenders experienced stressful events in the year prior to their attacks, with over two-thirds experiencing a stressor in the six months prior. They experienced stressors most often related to family or romantic situations, criminal arrests and charges, employment, and civil court actions.

Four days before the Pelosi attack, the perpetrator posted on his website an alleged 2021 email stating how he struggled with the urge to end his life as his relationship with his former partner and her children was falling apart. “I was extremely suicidal. Mentally I would beg you guys daily to let me kill myself,” he wrote in the email. The perpetrator allegedly cut off contact with his ex and her children after he said he was kicked out of their home and living in a car, according to his online account.

Essentially, the Pelosi attacker met several of the findings in the NTAC study, including that he had mental health issues with a delusional direction of interest toward Pelosi and was dealing with a variety of life stressors that had been concerning to individuals who interacted with him.

Much of the 2015 study’s findings were re-verified in 2017 after the Secret Service reviewed the behavioral characteristics of the Congressional baseball field attack. During that attack, the perpetrator was unemployed, his business had failed, he had a delusional direction of interest toward Republican officials (he blamed them for his situation), he had a criminal history, and he had become openly aggressive.

Similarly, in 2002, the Secret Service published the Safe School Initiative study which looked at school violence following the Columbine tragedy. The study listed ten key findings which included that most attackers engaged in some behavior, prior to the incident, that caused concern or indicated a need for help. Most attackers were also known to have difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures and many had considered or attempted suicide. Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or were injured by others prior to the attack, and most had access to and used weapons prior to the attack. In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity. The study also pointed out that developing and implementing a behavioral threat assessment model was key to preventing an attack.

It has followed up with several other studies on school violence, including its most recent 2021 study, Averting Targeted School Violence. Once again, the study found most attackers had communicated their threats, experienced life stressors, had a history of mental health concerns with concerning behavior, and had an interest in violence.

Back in a 1999 study, which looked at assassins’ behaviors, the Secret Service had come to many of the same conclusions about the behavior of assassins and how they targeted individuals. In that study, most assassins also had a history of mental health, had perceived grievances, communicated the threat to someone, and had past behaviors that predicated the attack.

What all the studies agree on is that behavioral patterns — if paid attention to — are identifiable and discernable which are key to determining or mitigating a potential threat. The only real difference between these types of threats is the age and label of the attacker. In all of these cases, though, if a true threat assessment model is used, one that incorporates a multidisciplinary approach focused on lifestyle and behaviors, then the potential to mitigate a threat and the damage from that threat is enhanced.

Donald J. Mihalek is an ABC News contributor, retired senior Secret Service agent, and regional field training instructor who served during two presidential transitions and multiple campaigns. He was also a police officer and served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves.

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