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The Importance of Leakage

young female texting on a mobile device

Recently, SNL star Pete Davidson posted this on his social media account (now deleted): 

“i really don’t want to be on this earth anymore. i’m doing my best to stay here for you but i actually don’t know how much longer i can last.”

If you’re not familiar with the term “leakage”, that is just a glimpse of what it can look like. Essentially, it is a cry for help and an opportunity to intervene. The general definition is: “leakage in the context of threat assessment is the communication to a third party of an intent to do harm” to oneself or others, and those forms of communication can vary from letters, diaries, blogs, social media posts, videos, emails, or voicemails.

Regarding targeted violence and according to the FBI, in four out of five cases the shooter told someone about their plans or revealed their intentions on social media. Between 2016 – 2018, forty percent of acts of violence in schools were leaked on social media. In short, leakage is something we all need to understand and pay attention to. But what is it we are looking for exactly?

Lots of kids say and do things they don’t mean, and in retrospect, it’s easier to identify a signal of illness, harmless adolescent ranting, or a loaded comment with clear intent to hurt. In fact, there is a term for this retrospective piece of information: a token. School and public safety leaders always want to identify leakage before it becomes a token.

Absent a multi-disciplinary threat assessment process, the unclear intention, combined with the frequency of violence at schools today, can lead to the dismissal and/or desensitization toward threatening language. Regardless of whether something is intended as a joke or to be carried out, we need to collectively raise our level of consciousness.

We need to raise it as observers, caregivers, professionals, and communities, and we need to take seriously every comment and review in context. We need to guide our youth toward an understanding of what they say and do matters – in person and online. They need to know that someone is listening and cares.

How many times have we heard: “I didn’t realize that person was serious when they made that post, so I just figured they were kidding or having a bad day.”  The level of severity within a threat isn’t always clear, but recent practices in threat assessment and management largely emerging in the wake of the tragedies at Columbine and Virginia Tech have helped schools develop the skills and processes to assess behavior through a lens of caring. 

They can’t do this, however, without being aware of what was said or shared – without the leakage. Every member of the school community has an obligation to say something, not necessarily to assess. Schools now have an obligation to develop reporting mechanisms to receive and assess this important information and intervene if necessary.

This isn’t new guidance, and yet tragedies like Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and several others still happened despite the leakage. Critical information is still slipping through the cracks, creating windows of opportunity for violence instead of opportunities for intervention, care, and prevention. 

It is beyond essential that schools employ effective, proactive efforts toward finding leakage early so that assessments can be made by school-based behavioral support teams. Otherwise, they rely on random reporting and law enforcement agencies not equipped to work with such school-based support professionals.

Back in 2015, in an article on threat assessments in The Mail Tribune, it reads “in many cases when a mass shooting has occurred, those close to the shooter saw warning signs they either did not recognize or did not report.” Teachers, police, counselors, parents, and school administrators can’t be everywhere all the time, listening and looking for leakage to prevent the next tragedy. But between human engagement and the use of technology and other forms of communication – like social media threat alert solutions and anonymous tip phone lines – eyes and ears really can be almost everywhere – but we need to hear it when it calls out.

Regarding Pete Davidson, the latest reports show that the SNL family has embraced him with love and support. They are getting him the resources he needs. His cry for help was heard, and now the wheels of intervention are in motion.