Protecting Schools From Targeted Violence

In 2023, campus safety is on all our minds. This year is one of the deadliest for gun violence on record,1 and the U.S. has experienced 386 school shootings since the Columbine tragedy in 1999.2 Every school campus needs proactive strategies in order to protect their community from a perpetrator with a gun.
The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV) at the University of Colorado studies the precursors of violent attacks. Center researchers have found similar patterns of concerning behavior among school shooters as well as considerable opportunities for intervention with would-be perpetrators prior to the attacks.3 CSPV sociologists Beverly Kingston and Sarah Goodrum have researched the details of school shootings in the past 20+ years and suggest three life-saving strategies for schools and communities to adopt to keep students safe from violence:3

1. Teach students and adults to report warning signs

Most perpetrators communicate their intentions to others prior to the attack, but many times, friends and classmates don’t take the threat seriously and don’t tell anyone in authority. Some of the most common warning signs include: 4

  • Threats to the target or others, and an intent to attack, including on social media
  • Harassing others
  • Intense or escalating anger
  • Interest in weapons or violence
  • Changes in behavior or appearance
  • Sadness, depression or isolation
  • Talk of suicide or self-harm
  • Complaints of being bullied
  • Worries over grades or attendance

2. Create, Publicize and use 24-hour anonymous tip lines for people to safely report their concerns

Often, friends or family members of a potential perpetrator are reticent to report concerning behavior out of fear they won’t remain anonymous or that the situation is none of their business. Yet reporting negative behavior or warning signs is one of the most effective ways to prevent violence. According to a 2021 analysis of averted school violence, researchers examine a database of 230 school violence cases and found that more than over 170 attacks were averted because people in the school or community spoke up and reported concerning behavior.5

3. Conduct Behavioral Threat Assessment of concerning situations

When people report concerns about someone’s negative or threatening behavior, a dedicated team of school administrators, law enforcement and mental health professionals should evaluate the information and work together creating a plan to support and monitor the concerning person’s actions, behavior and communications. A best practice for conducting a behavioral threat assessment is for a team from diverse professional backgrounds to analyze the concerning situation, determine whether the student poses a genuine threat and decide on the safest course of action for everyone involved. The team should also seek to understand the impetus for the would-be perpetrator’s concerning behavior: (e.g., a specific grievance, psychological trauma or mental health issue) to better assess and manage the potential threat.

Be Prepared

It’s important to remember that being prepared in the case of potential gun violence in schools is critical. These strategies can help school administrators handle concerning situations before they escalate and avoid violence altogether.

This article was written by our Workforce Risk Management Team. For additional resources and information, please reach out to

1Pilkington, E. (July 5, 2023). Fourth of July overshadowed by 16 mass shootings across US. The Guardian.

2Cox, J.W. et al. (June 11, 2023). More than 356,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine. The Washington Post.

3Kingston, B., and S. Goodrum. (March 3, 2023). 3 ways to prevent school shootings, based on research. The Conversation.

4Alathari, L. (2019). Protecting America’s schools: A U.S. Secret Service analysis of target school violence. U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center.

5Averted school violence (ASV) database: 2021 analysis update. (2021). Community Oriented Policing Services. U.S. Department of Justice.

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