16/05/2013 13:45 | By Toby Earle, Senior TV Editor

Sandy Hook, Newtown, and school shootings analysed in PBS film

School shootings are examined in a new run of films on PBS, starting with how a former Secret Service psychologist stopped 120 attacks.


Columbine PBS America (© Getty)

Guns in America is a new season on PBS which explores the USA's relationship with firearms, weapons that the US constitution has allowed its citizens to own almost since the country's inception.

However, the difference in 18th century guns to those in the 21st century is enormous: in 1775 a rifleman would take 15 seconds to load, aim, and fire, whereas last December it took Adam Lanza sixty seconds to spray dozens of rounds at a primary school in Newtown, Connecticut. In Path to Violence, one of this season's shows, the work of former Secret Service psychologist Robert Fein is explored, as his work on the Safe School Initiative has helped prevent 120 attacks.

We spoke to Robert about how this study came to be and what he uncovered from researching these harrowing crimes.

How did you find yourself working on this particular aspect of school security?

I'm a psychologist and in the early 1990s the director of the US Secret Service, the agency responsible for protecting the President and other national leaders, asked Secret Service agent Bryan Vossekuil and myself to do an operational study of assassination. That is, to look at the thinking and behaviour of anyone in the US who had selected a prominent public official or figure as a target and had then either attacked or tried to attack that target.

Special Agent Vossekuil and myself studied the pre-attack behaviours of 83 people who engaged in 74 attacks in the last half of the 20th century against national leaders and major public figures. Right after the Columbine attacks in 1999 the US Secretary of Education, who had read about our assassination study, went to the director of the Secret Service and asked whether Special Agent Vossekuil and I would conduct a similar study of school shootings. One that was geared to help people prevent school attacks.

The director asked us to examine the thinking and behaviour of young people who had chosen schools to attack in the days, weeks, and months before they tried to attack them. The period we covered was from 1976 to 2000, and for several years we looked at the pre-attack behaviours of 41 young people in 37 attacks, who had brought weapons to school and planned to attack others.

Was there a correlation between the behaviours of those planning an assassination and those who planned an attack on their school?

There were several similarities. The first is that in assassination and school shootings these were not sudden, impulsive attacks. We found that they where the end result of an understandable and discernible process of thinking and behaviour. The notion that someone simply snaps or that these attacks come out of the blue are not correct.

We found that to be a very hopeful finding, because if people just snap what can you do to prevent it? If it's a process of thinking and behaviour that's often discernible, then school officials, police officials, and others could identify behaviours and help prevent these kind of attacks.

What sort of time scale are we talking about between what started as a fantasy and then finally being enacted?

In some cases, with the young people in schools, it was from days to over a year. For example, if one looks at the two young men who attacked Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, they had clearly been thinking about attacking for over a year. In other situations, it was several days or several weeks.

Have any of the individuals who embarked on a spree like this survived for questioning?

Oh, yes. In the school shooting study we interviewed ten of the school shooters and in the PBS show, there is a case study of one of the people we did interview. We sat down and asked them, 'What happened?' We wanted to learn their version of the story and examine it carefully.

Many of these young people said to us, 'I'm glad to tell you my story, because maybe it would help you and others prevent kids from doing what I did.'

And did they have an understanding of the consequences of their actions? Did they realise after the event the enormity of their actions?

Generally, they did not. Certainly in the days before, as one young man said to us, 'It was like an avalanche. It just started going and going'. He said to us, 'If someone could have told me that I would get a million years in gaol, I wouldn't care.' He wound up getting 99 years.

It was as if once they moved along this path, for many of these young people, it was a single focus, because they saw this as the way to solve their problems.

The other finding that was so striking to us in this study was that in about 80% of the cases other kids knew that the young person was either going to attack the school or do something really bad. And rarely did they let an adult know.

Why was that?

That's a question still worthy of much consideration. For some kids, they didn't believe they'd do it, for others it was because school was boring...

Sorry? Boring?

When people ask kids those questions it's after the fact, so you have to be a little sceptical of what one learns. We tended to focus on what we've found, which is that kids knew and didn't tell. We want to encourage people to create a culture where rather than you're snitching on somebody, you're saving lives by bringing it to an adult.

I think in the last ten or so years in the States, there have been many circumstances where kids were concerned about another kid's behaviour or postings, and let others know. The adults were then able to intervene and help the young man - often a troubled young man, sometimes a young woman - to not do this.

We really push the notion that there is no profile; no psychological or demographic or descriptive profile of these kids. One can have all kinds of views about computer games and violence, but one can't jump and say, because a kid is involved with violent computer games that kid is at greater risk of being a school shooter. We simply don't know that.

Did those kids who weren't stopped in time have any idea what they were going to do after their attack?

In the kids we looked at, they very often did not think ahead. They saw themselves as having serious problems and they saw the attack at school as an acceptable and only way to resolve their problems.

Incorrect ideas, obviously, but they held them. One kid, for example, when he went into school with a gun and shot it, he then kept shooting. He hadn't thought about what to do after he shot this one person he was most concerned about. The focus was on how the shooting would solve their problem, which in no case it does solve a problem.

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