These technologies that can help schools spot potential shooters before disaster strikes

In the United States, the same question keeps popping up after every mass teen shooting: How did we fail to notice the warning signs?

Identifying troubled youth at risk of harming others is a major concern for American schools and communities. Police forces investigating these young gunmen confirm that there are several warning signs of these killings and that swift action upstream is essential to avoid them.

School districts are increasingly using surveillance software that analyzes young people’s messages and writings, as school-age shooters almost always record their horrific plans.

Developed by companies such as Gaggle, Lightspeed Systems and Bark, this software searches communications on school-owned devices and networks. Artificial intelligence (AI) then detects the vocabulary a learner uses to suggest an action, either against themselves or against others. Emails and thoughts from students written in Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365 discussing plans for violent action, as well as web searches for weapons or ways to commit suicide, are flagged to administrators for action. †

“It’s an early warning system that warns us of what could happen so we can deal with it before it becomes a criminal act,” said Quintin Shepherd, director of Victoria Independent School District, in Texas, some 200 miles away. east of Uvalde, where 19 primary school students and two teachers were killed on Tuesday by an 18-year-old school dropout.

Amid Covid-19, School Districts Received Billions of Dollars in Federal Funding to Address Mental Health Problems and Learning Delays

While it’s impossible to know how many school shootings have been prevented, users of this software say the technology can spot red flags when students communicate through school services. But security experts warn that institutions must be able to act once these alerts are received, by having procedures in place to review these alerts and assign staff to resolve them.

Alerts usually include the words marked suspicious, the type of threat (murder, suicide, or something else), and where the student typed their message. When a threat is considered serious – for example, a student talks about suicidal thoughts outside of a class project on the subject – school counselors visit the student’s home. Parents often express surprise, school officials say. Depending on the situation, the student may be hospitalized, referred to a therapist for treatment or more closely monitored by counselors.

The 18-year-old charged with killing 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, was hospitalized earlier this month. But the medical staff judged that he was neither dangerous nor suffering from psychiatric disorders and sent him home.

The District of Victoria uses Gaggle, which costs about six dollars per student per year. However, school districts cannot rely on technology alone to prevent school violence, Dr. Shepherd says. When he became director four years ago, he asked community members what their concerns were. Student safety was at the top of the list. The adults replied that they wanted more concrete resources in this sector, with the presence of police officers in the institutions and warning systems. For their part, the students said they wanted more psychological support and help in coping with their stress problems.

Amid Covid-19, school districts have received billions of dollars in federal funding to address mental health issues and learning disabilities. Institutions are working to use all the tools at their disposal to detect and prevent acts of violence, but many of them struggle to spend this government support before these funds are abolished in 2024.

Mr Shepherd says his district has cut more than 300 operational, administrative and educational positions to bolster its student counseling services. Victoria, with 13,500 students and based in a low-income Hispanic community similar to Uvalde, has recruited a socio-emotional behavior specialist at each school to help students and families in difficulty.

“We realized that every student comes to school with different feelings, which can be sadness, anger, or upset,” says Dr. Shepherd. If we can identify them early and early, we can help children not let their feelings take over their emotions, because then terrible things happen. †

Warning Signs

Last year, US intelligence agencies analyzed 67 plans for violent action against schools that were thwarted. In 94% of the cases, the authors had communicated their plans via electronic messages or online publications. Many of them also had their intentions described in diaries, documents and video or audio recordings that were not shared. Just before the shooting, the gunman from Uvalde sent a private Facebook message to a teenager living abroad informing her of his intention to kill her grandmother and schoolchildren. He also reportedly posted photos and videos of guns and self-harm on social media.

“People with homicidal tendencies often have suicidal thoughts. We see both tilts as potential threats to the neighbourhood.”

According to a report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on the behavior of the gunmen before the attacks, the latter exhibited four to five types of behaviors that worried those around them, such as a change in their psychological state, difficult relationships with others. and discussions about violence. The gunmen had also experienced multiple problems in the year before the attack, ranging from disciplinary action at school to assault at home. Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety or paranoia were common among these shooters. However, only about 25% of the cases investigated by the FBI had a formal diagnosis before the attack.

According to the FBI, classmates among shooters under the age of 18 had been observed more often with regard to behavior than family members. In 41% of the cases this was reported to the police. And in most situations, the only discussion about their behavior was between the shooter and his comrades.

According to the FBI and other agencies, suicidal thoughts are also common among teens who harm others.

“People with homicidal tendencies often have suicidal thoughts. We view both tendencies as potential threats to the district,” summarizes David Watson, director of safety and security for School District 49 in Falcon, Colorado, which uses Bark to alert administrators to threats posed by students. Watson says his district began to notice an increase in youth mental health issues during the 2017-18 school year, and there have been many student suicides in the area northeast of Colorado Springs since then.

Bark offers schools a free version of its AI-powered service to analyze communications. The software is not a standalone application or a filter used on the school network, it is installed on their Google and Microsoft Office 365 services. For an annual subscription of two dollars per student, districts can pay for the services of verifiers to address any serious threats reported outside of class hours.

Katey McPherson, director of development for professionals at Bark, says schools need “trained staff who understand what a student’s trajectory to violence or suicide looks like.” She adds that “districts without this training will not be able to take full advantage of this tool. †

dr. Shepherd says his Texas district has faced at least 20 serious threats of harming himself or harming others this school year. But he points out that the community is never informed of the acts of violence that the preventive measures have prevented. “Newspapers never publish stories about what didn’t happen,” he concludes.

(Translated from the original English version by Grégoire Arnould)

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