Researchers look for ways to identify young people who are on the ‘pathway to violence’

The massacre in Uvalde is again driving heated debate about the millions of guns owned by Americans, and how some clearly disturbed people can get those weapons and wreak havoc in an instant. Mark Follman, an editor at Mother Jones and author of “Trigger points," and Marisa Randazzo, executive director of threat assessment at the security firm, Ontic, join William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The massacre in Uvalde is again driving heated debate about the millions of guns owned by Americans, and how some clearly disturbed people can get those weapons and wreak havoc in an instant.

    William Brangham has more on what we're learning about how to interrupt that process.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    There is a technique known as behavioral threat assessment that tries to do just that, to recognize the warning signs that someone is about to commit a violent act and find a way to effectively step in and head off disaster.

    I'm joined now by two people who know a great deal about this work.

    Mark Follman is an editor at "Mother Jones" and author of "Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America." And Marisa Randazzo is the executive director of threat assessment at the security firm Ontic. She used to be chief research psychologist at the U.S. Secret Service.

    Thank you both very much for being here.

    And, Mark Follman, to you first.

    A lot of your book looks at the research and implementation of these behavioral threat assessments. Could you explain what they are? What are they looking for? How does it work?

    Mark Follman, Author, "Trigger Points": Yes, so this is a method that brings together multidisciplinary expertise in mental health, in law enforcement, in education, in other fields to work collaboratively to evaluate specific individuals who are raising concern that come to the attention of authorities, to try to figure out the level of danger with threatening comments or social media posts or other concerning behavior, and to try to figure out what the root problems are with the individual, so as to step in and intervene constructively, essentially to get the person the help that they may need.

    So many of the people who commit these attacks are people who are spiraling into crisis, suffering from rage and despair and developing violent ideas, and then planning to carry them out. So, that presents opportunity to intervene before it's too late.

  • William Brangham:

    Marisa Randazzo, you have been helping develop and implement some of these types of practices.

    It sounds like this research both punctures some of the myths that we have about these types of attacks, that someone just snaps in an instant and goes on one of these rampages, but also that there is, as Mark was just mentioning, a sort of recognizable pathway leading up to these events that we could intervene in.

    Can you explain a little bit more about that?

    Marisa Reddy Randazzo, Ontic Center of Excellence: Yes, sure.

    Research that I have been part of and others at the Secret Service and the FBI and elsewhere for the past several decades has actually shown that these types of shootings are thought out in advance, planned out in advance, that the planning behavior is observable to other people around them, and I'd say probably most importantly that the would-be shooter tells other people beforehand about the violence that they're planning to commit.

    So there's information out there which, from a behavioral threat assessment standpoint, means we have an opportunity to uncover someone on that pathway to violence, and to move them off that pathway to violence before they can do harm.

  • William Brangham:

    So, Mark, picking up from that, let's say school officials, law enforcement, parents, whomever it is that are doing these assessments do make those identification identifications that someone is in trouble.

    What happens then?

  • Mark Follman:

    Well, what a team will do is develop a plan to then manage the person of concern and to try to help them and, as Marisa said, get them onto a better path.

    This is a process that takes place over time. I was able to go inside a number of these cases over a period of many months in a community and Oregon, a school district there that has a robust version of this model.

    And, often, what you see is, by extending troubled student help with counseling, with individual educational support, with working closely with the family whenever possible, these troubled people can be helped. They can be moved on to a different path and do better.

    And there are successful cases like this that are happening quite a bit around the country. The public doesn't hear about them because the result is good. There isn't a violent outcome. And so it's good that we don't hear about them.

  • William Brangham:

    Right. We so rarely hear good news about these kinds of things. It is good to know that those things are happening.

    Marisa Randazzo, I wonder if you could talk a little bit more what you were mentioning before, which is the things that we know are warning signs. I know that there's a lot of parents, a lot of family members out there who are thinking, is what I'm seeing in this young person in my life just natural teen angst or is this something more problematic?

    Like, can you tick off some of the things that really do stand out as warning signs of trouble?

  • Marisa Reddy Randazzo:

    Well, one of the things that's really important is that students are likely to be the ones who hear long before and adult notices any concern.

    Students are likely to be the ones who have heard about these ideas, these plans of violence, maybe someone's sort of starting to joke about it, talking about researching previous attacks.

    So, any students, any peer who sees something directly, sees it on TikTok, on YouTube, on Instagram, wherever it may be, if they hear anyone mentioning, engaging in, thinking about, planning for some type of school shooting or some type of violence, it's really important to bring that information forward. So that's a big piece that our students can help in terms of safety.

    The other piece is, one thing we often see and we miss is that, especially for boys and young men, depression looks quite different than what we see kind of from the Hollywood script. So, depression in boys and men often comes across as an act of anger, rage, an attraction to extremist ideology, attraction to hate.

    And we may just dismiss that not as a clinical concern, a mental health concern, but as a boys will be boys or it's just a phase. It actually might be a symptom of an underlying clinical depression.

    So a parent who sees that in their own child, some — a teacher who sees that, it's important, again, to get this to your threat assessment team, or get this information to someone who's in a position to take a look at this clinically, even if it's a pediatrician, and say, hey, I'm concerned about this. Could this be a sign of underlying clinical depression?

  • William Brangham:

    Mark Follman, your book "Trigger Points" has several examples of successful interventions that you touched on before.

    Can you briefly give us just a sense of one example where people saw a particular case, a young person, and what they saw and how they acted?

  • Mark Follman:


    Well, one story I tell in the book is the case of a high school junior who I call Brandon. This is in the Salem-Keizer district in Oregon. And he made a series of threatening comments or what could possibly be threatening comments that were overheard by peers.

    He talked about bringing a gun to school and shooting up the school on a Friday. One student who overheard it wasn't sure if he was joking. This is a pattern we see in a lot of cases with school threats and shootings. With the Buffalo shooter and with the shooter at Oxford High School in Michigan, there were these sort of feints about just joking.

    That's an important signal to a team, especially with a series of comments over time. And so the team discovered that there was a lot of other things going on with the student that were concerning. He was starting to deteriorate in some ways personally. He was failing out of classes. He quit a drama club that he'd been very engaged in.

    So these were, taken together, a picture of a student in crisis. And coupled with threatening comments that he was making, they took a serious look and moved to intervene quickly. They first had to determine, did he have access to the gun he was threatening to bring to school? It turned out the answer was no.

    But then the question was, how do you manage this over the longer term? And so the team made a plan for that, and worked with teachers That they could connect him with more closely. That's an important principle of this work too. Often, there's a lack of connection with at-risk youth who are starting to think about violence of this nature.

    And by taking this series of steps over a period of months, I was able to see how this really helped Brandon into a better place and was no longer thinking about violence and planning violence went on to graduate.

  • William Brangham:

    That's really — it's what we need to hear more of.

    Marisa Randazzo, you touched on this before, which is, in the case that Mark is talking about in Texas, in Buffalo, and in all of these other cases that we now know, unfortunately, by name, these are young boys, these are young men who are largely committing these mass shootings.

    Do we know why? What is the connection between being a young male in America and being the overwhelming preponderance of mass shooters?

  • Marisa Reddy Randazzo:

    One big piece that is often not talked about is the fact that the vast majority of these shooters are at a point of being despondent or even suicidal when they carry out these attacks. Some of them have actually planned to kill themselves, to take their own life at the end of the attack that they were engaging in.

    A lot of the tools that we have available to us that we know helps someone who is feeling suicidal are actually quite appropriate for managing cases like this, where their thought is about taking other lives before taking their own.

    That's a big piece of what's motivating it. There's often these underlying problems that they now feel overwhelm their ability to solve them, overwhelm their ability to cope. And they may start to look at suicide as a solution, may start to research it and discover others who've engaged in a homicide/suicide situation, particularly these mass school shootings.

    And so they start to look at it as a viable option. When we can uncover someone who is starting to think along those lines, figure out what that underlying problem is, why are they feeling overwhelmed, why are they feeling despondent, and like they have no options left, they don't want to live anymore, that's where we can get in, find solutions, connect them to support and care, and get them off that pathway to violence and keep them off that pathway to violence.

  • William Brangham:

    So important to know that this work exists and it's had some successes.

    Marisa Randazzo, Mark Follman, thank you both very much for joining us.

  • Marisa Reddy Randazzo:

    Thank you.

  • Mark Follman:

    Thank you.

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