Active assailant incidents, in which the attacker targets their victims in an arbitrary manner, understandably attract high levels of media attention when they occur at schools. While several such incidents have taken place in recent years including in 2019, they continue to be relatively rare occurrences. In the past year, S-RM has recorded 16 active assailant attacks at educational institutions in eight different countries around the world. This compares to 13 attacks in 2018, 10 in 2017 and 9 in 2016. Attacks in each of those years have been most common at secondary schools, but fatal attacks have occurred at primary and tertiary levels too.
The weapons attackers used has varied widely. In the US, relatively easy access to firearms means that fatal attacks this year, as in previous years, have most often been shooting incidents. China, on the other hand, has some of the strictest firearm regulations in the world, with private citizens effectively banned from gun ownership. As a result, active assailant incidents there are more likely to be perpetrated using knives, or improvised weapons such as hammers. Other weapons in school attacks in 2019 included a sabre, used in an incident in Finland in October, while an assailant in Russia used petrol bombs and an axe when he attacked a school in May.
Expectedly, most perpetrators of school attacks have some institutional connection to the target: they are either students, former students, or staff members. However, particularly in China, the attacker is often an outsider, with no identified association with the targeted school. This has been the pattern over the past 10 years in China, and 2019 was no exception: of the five recorded attacks, four were perpetrated by an outsider.
The diversity of locations, attacker profiles, motives for attack and the weapons used speaks to the arbitrary and unpredictable nature of active assailant attacks, whether these incidents occur at schools or not. However, educational institutions offer soft targets, thereby potentially making them more vulnerable to attack. Schools also tend to be easily accessible, particularly so if the attacker is a student or member of staff. As a result, further school attacks in 2020 are to be expected. Improved preparation and response capabilities can limit casualties, but predicting the occurrence of specific incidents remains an unresolvable challenge for the education sector.
Read our 2020 Travel Security Special Edition for more global security insights.