Students who commit serious acts of violence at school rarely do so suddenly or impulsively, experts said Friday during an annual safety conference for Baltimore County educators, held just weeks after two gun incidents unnerved the school community.
People usually know about attacks ahead of time — and most students who commit violence raise red flags for their teachers and others to see, said Detective Steve Jackson of the county Police Department.
"They've been on somebody's radar," Jackson told a group of teachers, administrators and counselors. "They've made the hairs on the back of somebody's neck stand up."
Jackson's presentation with school psychologist Linda Meade was one of dozens of seminars at the school system's annual Safe Schools Conference.
On the first day of school in August, 17-year-old student Daniel Borowy was seriously injured in a cafeteria shooting at Perry Hall High School. Robert W. Gladden Jr., 15, was charged as an adult in the shooting.
Two weeks later, a 13-year-old student at Stemmers Run Middle School in Essex brought a loaded gun to school. No one was injured.
While teachers have always been concerned with safety, the recent incidents have sharpened focus on the issue, said Tamara Cole, who teaches physical education for special-needs students at Battle Monument School in Dundalk.
"I think people's guards are up a little bit more," she said.
Kyle Martin, assistant principal at Battle Monument, said he's seen a shift during his 13 years with the school system, with schools now focusing on a team-oriented approach where teachers, administrators and counselors work together to identify troubled children.
"I think the school system's doing everything they can to stay on top of it," Martin said.
Meade said it's important to take a balanced approach to threats.
"You have to treat each threat seriously but not in a hysterical way," she said.
Sometimes, for instance, students describe violent images in a journal, but the words are actually lyrics from popular songs, she said. While it's important for a teacher to follow up, it doesn't necessarily mean the student will commit violence.
A student often will target someone's property before targeting the person, so school leaders should take it seriously when a student damages a teacher's car or classroom, she said.
Police often can help school administrators access information they wouldn't otherwise be able to get, Meade and Jackson said. In one case, investigators found that a student who was making threats had extensive knowledge of explosives.
And a police visit to a home can reveal clues about a child's family life — such as whether they are living in a home that "is like an episode of 'Hoarders,' " said Jackson, who handles threat assessments for schools and workplaces.
Red flags with students include anger problems, difficulty dealing with stress, a history of victimization, access to firearms, and alcohol and drug abuse, they said.
But Jackson said "there are no guarantees" when it comes to threat assessments.
"You cannot predict violence," Meade agreed.