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It doesn't happen with every mass killing inflicted by a shooter in the United States, but it happens often enough.

In the aftermath, sometimes before there's a clear accounting of the carnage, some news outlet doing its job reports that the shooter had previously spoken to someone of taking lives, or of delivering his version of "justice" to a particular location. Or maybe his expressions of deadly intent were posted to social media for many to see.

What’s the point?

Students, others must listen and act when they hear anyone making threats involving a school or other facilities.

"I didn't think he was serious," is a phrase that's been offered in some form or another more than once by someone mortified that someone known had actually followed through on their morbid threats.

From the outside looking in, the comments are head-scratchers. Those who haven't witnessed someone threatening deadly behaviors find it difficult to understand how anyone can hear them and just brush them off. But really, when you've known someone, even someone with a somewhat dark disposition, how many people can actually fathom a capacity to carry out a multitude of murders? As often as society witnesses such acts, it's still well beyond most of our imaginations that anyone we know could be so angry, unfeeling or sadistic.

If it's beyond our imaginations, why should we expect anyone else to be so prescient, to cognitively reach the point in which a massacre is a logical extension of an acquaintance's over-the-top remarks, whether in person or through social media?

Author and journalist Dave Cullen recently visited the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and Eureka Springs High School to talk about what he's learned about mass shootings. He's published two books: One in 2009 about Columbine High School, where in 1999 two students planned and carried out an attack that left 15 dead, including the killers, and a more recent one called "Parkland: Birth of a Movement."

Parkland is the town in Florida where a former student killed 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018.

Cullen reminded those listening how most mass shooters have hinted at or explicitly detailed their murderous plans in advance, but the people hearing those threats haven't taken them seriously.

"The key after Columbine was getting the word out to kids ... that you have to take all these (threats) seriously and get that information to an adult," he said.

It's the ol' "see something, say something" advice. In Great Britain, it's the "See it. Say it. Sorted," hopefully inspiring people to understand that even if what they report turns out to be nothing, law enforcement is there to sort those things out.

Such tips to law enforcement often spike after a serious shooting event, then people settle back into their usual ways, fully capable of becoming too dismissive of dangerous talk that could translate into dangerous action.

Too much is at stake to be dismissive.

Last year, a student at Huntsville High School posted a picture of himself on Instagram, a social media site, in which he held a rifle and wore a trench coat. The posting came 10 days after the massacre at Parkland, Fla. He didn't write anything to accompany the photo, but others did. One of the others wrote, "When I drop my pencil, start shooting."

The Huntsville student eventually removed the post, then replaced it without the gun and wrote "nothing bad was intended."

"I'm an ambitious, young enterprising individual, who wouldn't throw my future away for something as pointless as a school shooting," he wrote under the photo. "If I wanted to make an impact I would choose a much more high profile crowd th[a]n a bunch of hicks and jocks who are never going to be anything of particular value."

Perhaps that didn't convince anyone of his sincerity that nothing was meant by the original posting.

The school district expelled the student. And yet controversy continued has his mother sued to have her son reinstated, claiming the district's actions violated his right to free speech.

The school district, however, is responsible for a lot of students. Yes, the school's decision disrupted the young man's life, but the perceived threat could hardly be ignored by school officials. Young people must know that what they tell others, in person or through social media, must be taken seriously when guns and/or threats are involved. Young people must also recognize there is not sense of humor involved with "jokes" about school shootings.

There are no guarantees. Shooters and their motivations vary. But researchers say warning signs usually show up in the weeks leading up to their planned attacks. Nobody can afford to become complacent in evaluating the dangers associated with threats.

Cullen noted the "zero tolerance" policies that became popular after Columbine actually convinced many students to remain quiet when they witnessed friends or acquaintances posting questionable materials. They didn't want to get anyone expelled if they were wrong. So many schools have modified their responses.

But the starting point hasn't changed: Anyone who hears of threats about harming students or gunfire at the school must speak up to a responsible adult.

Imagine if you didn't and the worst happens.

Commentary on 10/08/2019

Print Headline: Hear it, halt it

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