TRAP-18 will present serious issues when schools begin to implement it for early identification of the “lone wolf” terrorist (AKA – student active shooter)


Commonalities of school shooter narratives…

  • Bullied
  • Told others prior to event
  • Male

While those points are typically accurate, the development of a profile rapidly fades following the “given” characteristics mentioned above.  For example, many shooters had good grades, many had a clean discipline record and many regularly interacted with a peer group.  There is no profile of a school shooter.

A New Assessment Tool

It makes sense to consider a guarded application of the US Government’s TRAP-18 (Terrorist Radicalization Assessment Protocol) investigative template as a means to assess sentinel-level threats made, or allegedly made, by students.  However, TRAP-18 is NOT a risk assessment instrument.  Hence, TRAP-18 would be introduced to the investigative process following positive indicators from other less invasive threat assessment screeners, such as the Salem-Keizer. 

Misuse of TRAP-18 will absolutely stain flagged students as “potential” terrorists.  Nonetheless, the benefits of introducing it to public schools outweigh the pitfalls.  Risk/reward offers an incomplete picture of TRAP-18.  Other reasons TRAP-18 isn’t in K-12 might have to do with the “newness” of the tool and the fact that the instrument is not inherent to training programs for school staff, including psychologists and social workers.  Not many school “folks” are aware of TRAP-18.  In perusing TRAP-18, I judged it is not something that can be learned and applied from reading a manual. 

What is TRAP-18?

TRAP-18 consists of 8 proximal warning behaviors and 10 distal characteristics.

8 Proximal Warning Behaviors

  1. Pathway
  2. Fixation
  3. Identification
  4. Novel Aggression
  5. Energy Burst
  6. Leakage
  7. Directly Communicated Threat
  8. Last Resort Behavior

10 Distal Characteristics

  1. Personal Grievance and Moral Outrage
  2. Framed by Ideology
  3. Failure to Affiliate
  4. Dependence on the Virtual Community
  5. Thwarting of Occupational Goals
  6. Changes in Thinking and Emotion
  7. Failure of Sexual Pair-Bonding
  8. Mental Disorder (41%)
  9. Creative and Innovative
  10. History of Criminal Violence

In a study of 111 lone actor terrorists (I apologize for not having a citation for this), 41% were positively identified as having a mental disorder.  Granted, there were other higher-prevalence indicators such as “Framed by Ideology” (100%), but the fact that (per this study) just under half of lone actor terrorists were identified as having a warning typology that included a “mental disorder” (and we know most mental disorders are co-morbid), is noteworthy as schools have rapidly increased both identification and provision of in-school services for youth with mental health needs.  How “mental health needs” are identified is not standard therefore inter-rater reliability is compromised to some degree.  I was trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid only 8 days ago.  TRAP-18 wasn’t a component of that training and nevertheless a nexus to such a mainstream school staff training is irrefutable.

TRAP-18 codes a “mental disorder” as “evidence of a major mental disorder by history or at present”.  Well, that’s just about every blade of grass in left field.  Sure, it’s one of eighteen criteria.  How much will that matter, though? 

Schools are on the cusp of an era with access to specialized tools that haven’t been trialed on the youth population.  Because the potential benefit is a finger on the scale, TRAP-18 is headed to a school near you.

I applaud TRAP-18.  It’s not perfect and it certainly hasn’t been around long enough to boast a comforting regression line – but it interrupts the seemingly endless pause in the chess game of preventing sentinel events authored by the “lone wolf”.  It’s risk-taking in a time when nobody wants to ditch the known icebox for the fangled fridge. 

Your due diligence will produce very current research (2015 & 2016) about TRAP-18.  Utilize the empirical search engine with the search words “TRAP-18”. 

TRAP-18.  This rather hushed countermeasure’s  flaws will be exposed and warrant modifications and re-calibrations.  We must supersede our knee jerk reactions of success or failure in order to welcome new knowledge over human tendencies of entrenching initial, incomplete justifications or simply scuttling TRAP-18 upon its first stumble so we can usher in whatever heralded elixer is next in line.