Preventing school shootings

District Attorney Summer Stephan

Over the last 20 years, what once was the safest place for our children – school – has turned into a place of constant worry and questionable security. In the face overwhelming grief over the tremendous loss of life at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, it feels like we have arrived at a time where school shootings and mass killings are the norm. With school and public venue safety at the top of our minds, I want to remind San Diegans of the efforts the District Attorney’s Office has undertaken to prioritize school safety and to emphasize the critical role the public plays in preventing school shootings.

In 2018, San Diego County established a School Threats Protocol, which guides how school, law enforcement and prosecutors respond to school threats. The protocol was updated in 2021 with the help of many agencies. It may be the first of its kind protocol with all 42 school districts in the county participating with the goal of preventing would-be school shooters before they act.

Of course, the protocol is not foolproof, but at its heart it relies on the following:

  • Never ignore a threat of harm, no matter the form.
  • Every threat is taken seriously, with evidenced-based guidelines for investigation and resolution of the threat. Taking threats seriously is supported by statistics.
  • 93% of school shooters make plans to carry out their attack and
  • 80% of them tell at least one person
  • 60% tell at least two people.

With these odds, it’s important for the public to know that you play a vital role in helping prevent school shootings by reporting suspected behavior or threats.

For anyone who thinks it’s funny to cause alarm and fear by posting a threat online or calling one into a school, these incidents go beyond a prank: they carry serious legal consequences, such as jail time. Making criminal threats is a felony crime even if there was no intent to carry out the threat; threatening words with the intent to cause fear and which reasonably cause someone to feel fear are sufficient for a felony charge. Juveniles can face jail time, or other consequences such as having their access to social media taken away by the court. It’s important to keep in mind however, that the juvenile justice system is meant to rehabilitate youthful offenders, not punish them. In instances where we can help them get on the right track with rehabilitation, mental health services and restorative justice methods, that is our first choice.

In the last 16 months, our office received 43 school threats cases to review for formal charges, of which 10 cases have been filed in juvenile court. Our message is clear: every school threat is being fully investigated and every suspect will be held accountable.

Here are some of the factors the DA’s Office and law enforcement consider, to confirm the credibility of a threat once the suspect has been identified:

  • Investigate their background, including whether the person made prior threats
  • Look at open-source intelligence such as social media posts
  • Check to see if they have registered guns, have made recent ammunition purchases or have access to guns
  • Check on whether there has been contact with terrorist organizations
  • Determine whether they have had psychiatric holds or other mental health red flags
  • Research whether the person has had a recent traumatic event or grievance with a particular school or person associated with a school

Even though we have a way to measure successful prosecution, it’s not as easy to measure successful intervention, but preventing even one death or one school shooting is our duty. The best prevention for a school shooting is bystander intervention. We use public tips to investigate and interrupt violence. It’s everyone’s responsibility to report threats. You can also report anonymously at StudentsSpeakingOut.org.

As your District Attorney, I’m committed to increasing communication and accessibility between the DA’s Office and the public. I hope these consumer and public safety tips have been helpful.

Preventing school shootings

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