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Police: Dangerous holes in school-shooting prevention strategy

A handful of viable threats are intercepted each year, law enforcers say, but complain that agencies’ abilities to prevent school massacres are hampered by a lack of information-sharing and unclear lines of responsibility.

A classroom at Kauhajoki Hospitality College following the attack in 2008 in which ten people were murdered. Image: Poliisi

Police have warned of potentially dangerous gaps in agencies’ abilities to prevent murderous attacks on schools and colleges in Finland.

Despite improvements in the way authorities try to prevent school shootings, since 19 people were killed in two massacres in 2007 and 2008, there remain worrying shortcomings in the way potential threats are dealt with, according to law enforcement agencies.

Police researcher Marko Savolainen says that under the current system, no single agency has responsibility for cases in which a youngster cannot be diagnosed with mental health problems, but is still clearly a danger to others.

”If a young person admits to planning a mass murder, but is not psychotic or mentally ill or in need of care, the door is open to them. No-one is responsible for deciding what should be done with them,” Savolainen said.

Savolainen said police intercept around five viable threats of school attacks every year, and believes that a handful of these would have gone on to be real attacks.

”They have gone to the location, got hold of weapons. They may even have a hit list. But we can never know if they would have gone through with it,” he says.

If a crime has not yet been committed, or a person has been fined for threatening behaviour, police lack the means to follow that person continuously. Savolainen said that in these cases the criminal process does not generally “improve” the situation, nor does the punishment make the problem go away.

One such case came to light last June, when a man and a woman, both aged 24, were convicted and imprisoned for a plot to kill some 50 people at the University of Helsinki using guns and poison gas.

During the trial it emerged that the pair had formerly issued threats against schools, and the young woman had received a fine for making armed threats.

Risk reports increased

Officially, the number of school threats has decreased, but the numbers of risk reports reaching Helsinki police’s Anchor team, charged with monitoring and preventing threatening behaviour, have in fact gone up.

Last year police across Finland received 65 reports of threats against schools, significantly higher than in other Nordic countries.

”I don’t know what’s causing it. Have authorities been more diligent with classifying a situation as risky, or are we coming across more cases?” asks the team’s psychiatric nurse Krista Juurikko.

The Anchor team carry out preventative police work, and its members contain social workers and nurses.

Helsinki police say they are frustrated that care programmes for young people at risk almost never work. Either the young people aren’t identified in the first place, or they cannot be placed on a special care programme, or they are bounced around from agency to agency.

”They say that child protection will look after them, or psychiatric services will look after them, or school. So no-one is responsible for the young person’s care,” Juurikko says.

More training

She calls on doctors at schools and local health centres to be more active in making referrals. Or she says there should be more psychiatric training in how to spot warning signs in young people.

Many of the young people investigated by the Anchor team have been known to agencies for years, sometimes since before primary school age.

Paper records may show that a young person is on a care programme, while in reality they are not attending. Sometimes Juurikko’s colleagues physically collect young people from home to take them to appointments, or at least phone them to check up.

”This is manual work,” she says.

Police would like more access to information about young people who could pose a risk to others. Current data protection regulations prevent a doctor from sharing information about a patient with police, even if the police were the ones who brought in a young person to see the doctor in the first place.

Zero tolerance

Savolainen of the Police Board says they do not want details of the diagnosis, but simply a green or red light about whether the case is being handled.

”There should be a system of checks, making it possible to know whether a person who may pose a risk is receiving care, and whether they are still considered a threat,” he said.

Some law enforcers have called for a debate over whether the criteria for forcing a young person to undergo treatment should be relaxed.

”Our duty to society is that when we know that someone says they want to cause harm to another person, we must be able to react and stop that happening,” Savolainen said.

Police also call for a zero-tolerance policy in schools, and more referrals. They say that co-operation and recognising the risks have improved  since the massacres at Kauhajoki and Jokela schools.

Numbers of threats tend to increase when there is news coverage of the issue. Savolainen says he hopes that will not be the case this time.

”Although these killings were many years ago, we must remember that this is not just about preventing massacres, but also looking after young people with problems to stop them growing into school shooters,” Savolainen said.

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