These technologies could help schools identify potential shooters before tragedy strikes.

In the United States, after every mass shooting of teenagers, the same question arises: why did we not notice the warning signs?

Identifying troubled youth who are at risk of hurting others is a major challenge for American schools and communities. Police services investigating these young shooters say there are several warning signs of these killings and that swift action is needed to stop them.

School districts are increasingly using surveillance software that analyzes messages and letters from young people as school-age shooters almost always register their horrendous schemes.

Developed by companies such as Gaggle, Lightspeed Systems and Bark, this software analyzes messages across school devices and networks. Artificial intelligence (AI) then detects the vocabulary used by the learner, suggesting action against themselves or against others. Emails and student thoughts written in Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365 that discuss plans for violent action, or online searches for weapons or suicide methods, are flagged for action by administrators. .

“It’s an early warning system that alerts us to what’s about to happen so we can take action before it escalates into a criminal act,” says Victoria Quintin Shepherd, principal of the independent school district in Texas, about 200 miles east. from Uvalde, where 19 elementary school students and two teachers were killed on Tuesday by an 18-year-old school dropout.

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While it’s impossible to know how many school shootings have been prevented, users of the software say the technology can detect red flags when students communicate using school services. But security experts warn that institutions should be able to act immediately upon receipt of these alerts, with procedures in place to evaluate these alerts and dedicate staff to handle them.

Alerts typically contain words marked as suspicious, the type of threat (murder, suicide, etc.), and the location where the student entered their message. When the threat is considered serious—for example, a student talks about suicidal thoughts outside of a class project on the topic—school counselors visit the student at home. According to school staff, parents often express surprise. Depending on the situation, the student may be hospitalized, referred to a therapist for treatment, or under closer supervision of counselors.

The 18-year-old accused of killing 10 people at a Buffalo, New York supermarket earlier this month was already in the hospital. But the medical staff considered that he was not dangerous and did not suffer from mental disorders, and sent him home.

Victoria County uses Gaggle, which costs about $6 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 was bothering them. Student safety came first. The adults responded that they wanted more specific means in this sector, with police presence in institutions and warning systems. For their part, the students said they needed more psychological support and help with their stress issues.

Amid Covid-19, school districts have received billions of dollars in federal funding to address mental health issues and learning delays. Agencies are working to use every tool at their disposal to detect and prevent acts of violence, but many are struggling to spend this public aid before the funds are eliminated in 2024.

Mr. Shepherd says his district has cut more than 300 operational, administrative and teaching positions to strengthen its student advisory services. Victoria, which has 13,500 students and is located in a low-income Hispanic community like Uvalde, hired a social-emotional behavior specialist in every school to help struggling students and families.

“We realized that each student comes to school with a variety of feelings, which can be sad, angry or upset,” says Dr. Shepherd. If we can identify them as early as possible, we can help children not let their feelings take over their emotions, because that’s when terrible things happen. »

warning signs

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

“Those who are prone to murder often have suicidal thoughts. We view both of these deviations as a potential threat to the county.”

According to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) report on the behavior of shooters before the attacks, the shooters displayed four to five behaviors that disturbed those around them, such as changing their psychological state, difficult relationships with others, and discussing violence. The shooters also faced numerous problems in the year prior to the attack, ranging from disciplinary action at school to domestic violence. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or paranoia were common among these shooters. However, a formal diagnosis was made before the attack in only 25% of the cases investigated by the FBI.

Among shooters under the age of 18, classmates were more likely to observe the behavior than family members, according to the FBI. They were reported to the police in 41% of cases. And in most situations, the discussion of their behavior was only between the shooter and his comrades.

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

“Those who are prone to murder often have suicidal thoughts. We view both of these tendencies as potential threats to the district,” said David Watson, director of safety for School District 49 in Falcon, Colorado, who uses Bark to alert administrators to student threats. Watson says his district began noticing an increase in mental health issues among youth in the 2017-18 school year, and since then, the area northeast of Colorado Springs has had many student suicides.

Bark is offering schools a free version of its AI-powered message analysis service. The software is not a stand-alone application or 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 may pay reviewers to review any report of serious threats outside of school hours .

Katie McPherson, development director for professionals at Bark, says schools need “trained staff who know what a student’s trajectory to violence or suicide looks like.” She adds that “districts without this training cannot make the most of this tool. »

Dr. Shepard says his Texas district has faced at least 20 serious threats of self-harm or harm to others this school year. But he notes that the public will never know about the acts of violence that were prevented thanks to preventive measures. “Newspapers never publish stories about things that didn’t happen,” he concludes.

(Translated from the original English version by Grégoire Arnault)