News & Events

Threat Assessments and ‘Leakage’:
What Your Teams Don’t Know Can Hurt You

In the simplest contextual definition, “Leakage is the communication to a third party of an intent to do harm to a target.” The term ‘leakage’ has recently been used with increasing frequency when analyzing high-profile school safety incidents. The concept was introduced 20 years ago by Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D. and former FBI profiler in a report on school violence. In the report she writes: “…leakage occurs when a student intentionally or unintentionally reveals clues to feelings, thoughts, fantasies, attitudes, or intentions that may signal an impending violent act.”

There are many other terms we’re familiar with that are synonymous with leakage. Red flags. Warning signs. These are the signals students give when they veer toward a concerning pathway. Sometimes they are subtle; other times they can be obvious. O’Toole continues: “Clues could be spoken or conveyed in stories, diaries, essays, poems, letters, songs, drawings, doodles, tattoos, or videos.” Past generations may think about graffiti or messages scrawled in a bathroom stall or on a desk. Today’s digital age offers a significant number of channels for students to share messages.

After the 2021 school shooting in Oxford, Michigan, investigators and media focused on images, messages and videos the suspect left on various social media platforms. According to O’Toole, school shooters in particular often leak hints about their plans before they carry them out. “I’ve seen it in nearly every case. And leakage is very specific because it is the shooter talking about what they’re going to do before they do it.”

Leakage can also involve a fixation on previous mass shootings to an extent where teachers are aware of it, or other students know about it. While a troubling social media post or a disturbing comment in class might not indicate any threat by itself, other concerns may have already been raised and when viewed collectively, the pattern may form leakage of a violent incident.

Most schools have begun forming School Safety and Threat Assessment teams to address worrisome behavior that is reported. But this is not enough when all the leakage is posted online. Digital Threat Assessment® provides vital training to inform critical decisions about active student behavioral threat assessment cases. Digital Threat Assessment® training is designed to help School Safety and Threat Assessment teams find and evaluate the leakage that can be found in students’ digital spaces—on TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat. Messages, images and videos are posted on social media platforms that educators may not be accustomed to navigating. It is increasingly vital that school safety leaders have visibility to these channels to proactively identify student safety concerns, and provide interventions for dealing with online situations as they arise.

The International Center for Digital Threat Assessment® (ICDTA), a partner of Safer Schools Together, was established to give threat assessment teams the tools and training needed to prevent tragedy and intervene at the first sign of worrisome behavior. The training offered by ICDTA is designed to give School Safety and Threat Assessment teams a stronger understanding of the current social media world, the ability to proactively identify potential leakage, and provide strategies for addressing worrisome behavior. Visit icdta.org/training to learn more.

1. The Concept of Leakage in Threat Assessment; J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D. and Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D.