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Washington School Shooting Followed Familiar Patterns. Here's What We Know

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A 15-year-old Washington boy pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder this week after police say he shot and killed a classmate and wounded three others in a Sept. 13 school shooting.

Caleb Sharpe, a sophomore at the 300-student Freeman High School near Rockford, Wash. had carried a handgun, a semi-automatic rifle, and multiple boxes of ammunition with him in a duffel bag he took onto the school bus that morning, police said. When the rifle jammed, he began shooting with the handgun, police said. He stopped shooting when he was subdued by a school janitor, officials said.

While every act of school violence has unique attributes, the Freeman High School shooting follows some patterns that have been common in other attacks. Experts on school security and risk assessment say being mindful of such patterns can help educators and policymakers understand the value of things like mental health interventions and the limitations of common, costly school security measures, like expensive building upgrades.

School shooters often "leak" their intentions in advance.

The cliché that school shooters are good people who "just snapped" is generally inaccurate, psychologists say.

The path to a violent mass attack often starts with a relatable frustration that grows through cultivation and study by the attacker,  Anders Goranson, a psychologist and threat-assessment specialist, said in a 2014 lecture.  And attackers usually experience "leakage" before they act, giving indications that they are planning to do something, he said.

A 2002 report by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center analyzed 37 school attacks that occurred between 1974 and 2000. Researchers concluded that attackers in 31 of those events had told at least one person about their plans beforehand. In 22 cases, two or more people knew about the planned attack in advance, the study concluded. In nearly all cases, the people who shooters told of their intentions were classmates, siblings, and friends of the attackers, it said.

That's why states like Colorado have seen success with tip lines that allow students to anonymously report concerns that their peers are having violent or suicidal thoughts.

Court records and media accounts summarize the ways Sharpe signaled his intentions, and how his actions raised concerns among his peers and teachers:

  • "I always knew you were going to shoot up the school," one of Sharpe's classmates said before he shot him, according to court records. "You know that is going to get you in trouble."
  • The shooting "came after troubling behavior by Sharpe that the documents and his classmates detailed," The Seattle Times reports. "They say he brought notes to school about doing 'something stupid,' was obsessed with past school shootings and posted videos online that showed him playing with guns."
  • Sharpe had been meeting with a counselor and had written a suicide note at home, the paper reported.
  • Sharpe bragged about his access to guns, several local media outlets reported.

The shooter got his gun from a relative's unlocked safe.

Sharpe apparently got his weapons from his father's gun safe, the Spokesman-Review reports.

It's not unusual for school shooters to use legally purchased guns that they bought or took from a relative.

That was the case for the Montana student who shot his principal, John Moffatt, in 1986 with a gun that was left unsecured in a relative's truck.

Moffatt is part of a growing campaign of educators who oppose laws that would allow more teachers to arm themselves. Violence could more effectively be prevented with public education campaigns about how to safely store and secure guns, that group says.  That's the focus of a campaign by the PTA, which teaches local groups about "responsible gun storage."

Physical school security measures aren't always enough.

It's unlikely that increased physical security measures at the school would have stopped the shooting. That's because, as a student, Sharpe could easily pass through its entrance, as the Spokesman-Review reported.

While a metal detector would have tipped school officials off to the guns police say Sharpe had in his bag, it's unlikely that a small, rural high school would have such equipment. About 95 percent of middle schools and 89 percent of high schools restricted access to their buildings during school hours in 2013-14, according to the most recent federal data available. But just 9 percent of high schools and about 8 percent of middle schools did random metal detector checks that year, that data show. And there's good reason for that: Such equipment is expensive and civil rights groups have said it creates a military-like school environment that isn't conducive to learning.

That doesn't stop policymakers from responding to school shootings by pushing new mandates for things like sophisticated locks and shatterproof glass in school buildings. But school safety experts say the human element—training for staff and proper supports for students—are the most important steps can take to improve safety.

Photo: Parents gather in the parking lot behind Freeman High School in Rockford, Wash., to wait for their children, after a deadly shooting at the high school on Sept. 13. --Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review via AP


Related reading on school shootings and school violence:

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