It can be the most dreaded news a parent can hear: a shooting at their child’s school.
It happened six years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary. Then this February in Parkland, Florida. And then just outside of Houston in May, when 10 people were killed and 13 others injured when a gunman opened fire at Santa Fe High School.
But as horrific as that list is, it would be even longer if it included school shootings that almost happened.
News 88.7 found one such case in Greater Houston, when a ninth grader at a local high school made a threat in February, 2017.
“He pretty much told his plans of placing bombs in a school cafeteria,” said Lt. Tiffany Jefferson, a Houston police officer who works with Crime Stoppers of Houston. “And that student went on to say that when the bombs explode and the students are going to flee the building, they will be shot.”
Jefferson said that another student heard about the plan and called in an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers. The public safety nonprofit increasingly deals with school safety.
Jefferson won't reveal the school's name to keep the tip line anonymous, and she won't identify the student because he's a minor. There’s also often a stigma attached to schools if they’re linked to threats or acts of violence.
What she wanted to emphasize, though, is they took this tip very seriously.
“There was a campus officer that was immediately contacted by one of our Crime Stoppers investigators and the juvenile who was identified was actually arrested for third degree felony and for terroristic threat,” Jefferson said. “And they were charged.”
Jefferson said that later the school police didn't find explosives on campus.
Still, experts say this shooting that almost happened offers key lessons.
“We've known that fellow students are an absolute critical part of prevention efforts,” said Marisa Randazzo. She used to work with the U.S. Secret Service as its chief research psychologist. Now she's co-founded a company, SIGMA Threat Management, that's helping Texas schools do threat assessments.
Randazzo said that in over three quarters of actual school shootings, the shooter told someone about his plans. So, authorities need to hear from that someone: “When we can encourage people to come forward and let people know if they hear about something, like in this case, if someone is talking about planning to engage in violence at school, it is quite possible to prevent, just like it has been done here.”
In fact, the National Police Foundation has started a database, where schools and districts can volunteer information about these shootings that were averted. It’s trying to study these cases so other schools can protect students and staff. Some early lessons include:
- Schools and law enforcement need strong relationships and open communication before an attack occurs;
- In over half the cases in the database, students were the first to discover another student’s plan. So, students should be encouraged to report threats and also coached on how to recognize signs of self-harm and depression;
- Threats should be taken seriously; and
- Parents should monitor social media accounts and what their children are searching online.
In the local case from 2017, Crime Stoppers had visited the Houston-area high school months before the threat. They coached over 2,000 teenagers on how to report tips in two sessions at the start of that school year.
“What went right is that the student that reported anonymously had been trained and knew what to do,” said Rania Mankarious, Crime Stoppers’ CEO.
But, Mankarious said, it was still a close call.
“What went wrong is the boy who made the threat had been operating under the radar until we came in and educated people,” she said. “Nobody knew what to look for. Nobody noticed that his language and activity had changed. So that’s a problem.”
Crime Stoppers, along with other state and national groups, are trying to reach more schools with lessons on "what to look for" — so would-be shooters are stopped before they can act.