School shootings have occurred with sickening regularity in the United States in the last decade. The shootings happen in all types of communities, while the shooters come from all different backgrounds. But almost all of them have one thing in common: they used social media to vent their anger and, often, declare their murderous intentions ahead of time.
An analysis of common trends in school shootings by the New Jersey Fusion Center said social media sites like Facebook are a common element in the majority of school shootings, with students who have conducted or planned attacks against their schools publicizing their anger and or intentions on sites like Facebook.
The “Situational Awareness Report” (PDF) on “School Shooting Commonalities” is dated November 15, 2012, predating the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that killed 26. In that case, the shooter, Adam Lanza, was described as a loner who spent hours playing online “first person” shooter games like Call of Duty on his X-Box, but spurned social media sites. Lanza destroyed hard drives containing records of his online life before his murder spree, and it is not know how much information forensic investigators will be able to retrieve from them.
Social media sites can indicate “pre-operational planning,” the report says, likening Facebook Wall posts to the diaries kept by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two teenagers who carried out the deadly attack at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. The report cites school shootings from Nebraska and Ohio in 2011 and 2012 in which the shooter posted messages of his intentions beforehand. In another incident, threatening online posts led to arrests of students in Utah who were planning a school shooting. More broadly, Internet sites often provide crucial information and resources for carrying out attacks, including access to violent and extremist web sites.
Fusion centers are information sharing organizations. The New Jersey Regional Operations and Intelligence Center (ROIC) was created in 2006 and is operated by the New Jersey State Police. Although intended to prevent another September 11th-style terrorist attack, the centers have become all-purpose law enforcement tools. The report on school shootings, for example, concludes that such incidents are “criminal” rather than “terrorist” actions.
That said, such events are – by their very nature – unpredictable. “History has shown that school shootings can occur at all types of educational institutions, no matter the size of the campus, nor student enrollment. School shootings have occurred all across the country,” the report reads. The likelihood of such an incident occurring in New Jersey – or anywhere else, for that matter – was described as “moderate.”