In many parts of the country, schools will be back in session in a month. The summer has provided ample opportunity for schools to address security weaknesses and to practice active shooter training and lock down drills. I recently spoke to the Florida School Resource Officers Association in Daytona Beach. I advised them that the threat is rarely from an outsider, and almost always, from a student who has access. I also warned them that we should not dismiss the concept of an unstable teacher or a domestic situation from intruding upon the sanctity of the school.
As much as I consider teachers the unsung heroes of securing our future, they are also representative of our communities. Teachers work under an extreme amount of stress. They are underpaid, overworked, and constantly stressed by bureaucracy and intrusive parents, not to mention controlling and disruptive students. Teachers are also not immune from society’s ills.
In 2011, Professor Amy Bishop of the University of Alabama at Huntsville was losing her tenure and being dismissed. Her narcissistic personality impaired her judgment and decision-making process. In her opinion, this was an intolerable position. While sitting in a faculty meeting, the Harvard-educated instructor pulled out a handgun, and began firing.
Three of her colleagues were murdered and three others wounded. Bishop displayed an ugly pattern of unacceptable behavior in the past. Her brother was killed from an “accidental discharge” of a shotgun held by Bishop. A professor who provided a poor evaluation of her student performance received a mail bomb. ATF never forensically linked her to the device. She had a trail of confrontations with neighbors, graduate assistants, colleagues, and civilians, which was a prologue to her final assault.
In May 2014, Bedford Central School District in NY fired Adam Heller, 35, an English teacher. Heller taught for 12 years at Fox Lane High School, but was terminated because there was “too much of a chance that he is a time bomb waiting to explode.” Disciplinary charges were first filed against Adam Heller on June 21, 2013.
In the termination letter, Mr. Heller was charged with misconduct and conduct unbecoming of a teacher, as well as incompetence to work as a teacher due to mental illness, including “delusions of thought control, feelings of helplessness and anger, thoughts of suicide, with the possibility of an acute risk to the safety of others.”
According to USA Today, in response to a lawsuit filed by the teacher, the district wrote, “A teacher may have bizarre beliefs and still be a fine teacher.” The caveat to that frame of acceptance was countered with their defense, “But when a teacher combines a paranoid belief system, demonstrated mental instability, strong suicidal tendencies, repeated expeditions to purchase weapons, and expressions of homicidal desires, and when he refuses to give an honest account of why he wanted to purchase weapons, there is genuine cause for alarm.” Heller was fired after an 8-day disciplinary hearing.
The District consulted with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. Heller had recently purchased three guns and was in the process of procuring a fourth when Pound Ridge Police intervened. Heller was transported to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla. He was involuntarily committed to the mental health unit.
After his release 12 days later, Heller was prescribed Wellbutrin, an antidepressant medication. The school district ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which suggested that Heller was suffering from schizophrenia, psychosis, and that his suicidal thoughts could indicate a potential for “aggressive conduct.” According to school officials, he failed to cooperate with a mental fitness evaluation. Heller’s attorney disputes those assertions.
In a study conducted by Texas State University, 50% of Active Shooters commit suicide prior to the arrival of law enforcement. In those Active Shooter cases where police arrived on scene, 30% of the shooters took their own lives. The Secret Service examined the mindset of assassins and near lethal attackers. They found that two thirds had previous suicide attempts or suicide ideations. Many mass killers have no expectation of surviving their assault.
The documents from the school also provided insight into his online conversations with a “medium” regarding various government conspiracy theories. Of the 540 emails exchanged with the medium, many of them displayed a behavior of concern. The medium became alarmed enough and concerned about the conversations that she notified the FBI.
The FBI notified the Bedford police that Heller had made multiple suicidal and homicidal statements as well as accruing weapons. Only a minute percentage of gun owners will ever engage in violence. What is of concern is a person who has exhibited evidence of mental instability and an unexplained increased attention on acquiring weapons. In addition, Bedford police reported they had received information about Mr. Heller and Internet postings on Facebook, YouTube and social media sites indicating possible suicidal threats and anti-government postings.
Heller also made statements online that he believed the government was “run by Nazis” and caused the Newtown massacre by controlling the mind of shooter Adam Lanza. These extremely concerning sentiments were intimated by a teacher. He, along with rest of the country, watched as 20 innocent children were slain by a deranged killer. He also stated that aliens had arrived to control the planet and that Hurricane Sandy was a government conspiracy or caused by aliens. His attorney claims that these are statements made outside of the classroom and protected under the First Amendment. He reported that Heller had worked for 12years as a teacher with no disciplinary record.
His attorney was incensed at that these “private conversations” were the basis for predicting future behavior. Mass killers have a long history of leakage through verbal, literary, and social media. In two thirds of those who considered or engaged in targeted violence, there was some form of leakage as a precursor to an attack. These were often dismissed by the recipients as joking or not being serious.
In Santee, California, two adults and 20 students overheard conversations by Andy Williams. All remained silent prior to his killing two and wounding 13 people. In Bethel, Alaska, students assembled in the library overlooking the lobby. One student brought a camera. Yet no one notified authorities prior to witnessing the killing of two and wounding two other individuals.
The Navy Yard killer, Aaron Alexis provided insight into his paranoia and mental instability prior to the shooting. Navy officials, after being notified by the Newport Rhode Island Police chose to ignore those concerns. The Santa Barbara murders by Elliot Rodger were preceded by YouTube videos that provided a peek into his disturbed mind. While one of 17 Americans has some form of mental illness, noted forensic psychologist E. Fuller Torey advocates that only one percent of the mentally ill are dangerous.
The Secret Service study found that 50% of those studied harbored delusional ideas. According to news reports, Heller believed his mind was being controlled by sinister forces. He was so consumed with upcoming civil unrest that he withdrew about $50,000 from his bank according to district documents. Heller’s lawyer, Michael Sussman, claims his client was merely expressing free speech and posed no risk. The parents of children attending Mr. Heller’s English class might not concur with the attorney’s opinion.
In December 2012, Heller acquired three rifles. In two separate transactions, he went to Precision Armory, in Putnam County and purchased a shotgun for skeet shooting. On the next day when the world was consumed with the Newtown rampage, he bought a Russian rifle. Then a friend gave him a .22-caliber rifle.
In mid-January 2013, he wanted to buy a rifle that could be disassembled. He decided not to make the purchase after being told by the clerk that the weapon could become illegal in the future. The police stopped him on the way home from the gun store. His attorney advocated for his client that he had never brought any of the weapons to school and all were legally acquired. Most Active Shooters never bring a gun to school until the day they commenced their killing spree.
On the “Rate My Teacher” website, Heller had a 64% approval rating from five reviews. The last review was posted on January 28, 2013 while he was undergoing psychiatric treatment. “Mr. Heller is a really easy teacher, one of the easiest I’ve ever had, he’s very odd though and usually offers an “out-there” opinion or thought to everything you say.”
Although, the psychiatrists deemed him not a danger upon discharge, that is not permanent stabilization in a fluid situation. The school district was left to conduct a threat assessment based on the holistic approach. Placing the safety of the students, parents, and faculty above the tenure of Mr. Heller was a courageous decision and an example that should be followed by other schools.
Mike Roche has spent over three decades in law enforcement. He retired in 2012 from the U.S. Secret Service after 22 years. He is an instructor for the Alpha Group and the author of three works of fiction and two non-fiction books, Face 2 Face: Observation, Interviewing and Rapport Building Skills: an ex-Secret Service Agents Guide as well as Mass Killers: How You Can Identify Workplace, School and Public Killers Before They Strike.