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Press Release

Remarks by U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain at the Delaware County Safe Schools Summit

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA – U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain was honored to speak yesterday at the 2018 Safe Schools Summit, hosted by Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun M. Copeland in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. U.S. Attorney McSwain’s remarks are below.


Thank you all for welcoming me here today. In particular, thank you to District Attorney Kat Copeland for inviting me to be the keynote speaker, and to her entire team for organizing such a collaborative and important event.

Ensuring the safety of everyone in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and pursuing justice is the core mission of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Nine counties constitute the Eastern District: Delaware, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Lancaster, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, and Philadelphia. Our Office is steadfast in pursuing justice fairly and equally, no matter where a crime occurs within the District. We recognize, however, that certain crimes may affect specific communities more than others. For example, violent crime may be more prevalent in one neighborhood while drug trafficking or government fraud may more steadily plague another.         

One of my first initiatives after I was sworn in as the U.S. Attorney in April was to visit all nine counties that make up the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and meet with the respective district attorneys and local law enforcement leaders. It is a priority of my Office to continue to foster these relationships and always keep our lines of communication open. In these meetings, I could see firsthand what every community faces and hear their concerns. And more than any other concern, I am sure it will come as no surprise that the well-being of our children is on the forefront of everyone’s mind, regardless of whether one resides in a city, a suburb, or in a rural area of this great district. The safety of our children and their schools is paramount, no matter where you live. And from my meetings with federal, state, and local officials, it is clear that we all have to be in this together to prevent tragedy in our community and to help troubled individuals find the resources that they need.

School safety certainly has been at the forefront of my mind. As the U.S. Attorney, I wanted to learn more to determine how my Office and the Department of Justice could help address the issue. For example, I wanted to know the trends involving mass shootings, and how school shootings in particular fit into the bigger picture. And in researching the issue further, I discovered that it is surprisingly difficult to say how many mass shootings have occurred in the history of the United States, given that there is no universal definition or database constituting what qualifies as a “mass shooting.” One study contradicts the next, all depending on which data those particular researchers decided to include and exclude and the metrics they decided to use. It is also impossible to prove how many would-be shootings were prevented, either because of measures that schools and local governments had put in place, mental health services that were provided to students, or actions taken by attentive and proactive parents and friends.          

I was able to learn some information, however. In 2016, which is the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published complete data, over 37,000 individuals were killed by firearms in this country. Of that number, approximately 61% - almost 23,000 – were deaths by suicide. Of the remaining 14,000 deaths by firearms, hardly any were due to school shootings.   We can and should take some comfort in that. The fact is that deadly school shootings are rare. That being said, one school shooting is one too many.

And too often in this country, we as a nation have grieved the senseless murders of innocent people as a result of domestic terrorism and mass shootings. Americans should be safe from such terror, no matter who or where they are. Studying in school or going to work, worshiping at church or cheering for friends at a marathon, relaxing at a movie theater or enjoying an evening at a night club – all of these activities should be safe-havens for every American. But as we know, places like these have sometimes turned into crime scenes where innocent lives have been lost. It cannot be stressed enough: one more mass shooting is one too many.           

I want to make clear to everyone in this room, and everyone in our extended community, that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the Department of Justice take seriously every threat of gun violence in our community and will do everything in our power to prevent tragedy from occurring. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice announced more than $70 million in grant funding under the STOP School Violence Act. These grants are provided to bolster school security, develop anonymous school threat reporting systems, educate and train students and faculty, and support law enforcement officers and first responders who arrive on the scene of a school violence incident. These grants are in addition to the funding provided to the National Association of School Resource Officers, which the Attorney General announced at the end of September, intended to expand and update the curriculum to better support training programs such as this one. The Department of Justice has also awarded more than $64 million to state agencies to improve the completeness, quality, and accessibility of the nation’s criminal record systems, which will help law enforcement and increase the effectiveness of background checks. This year, at the direction of the Attorney General, the Department also prioritized funding for projects that improve accessibility of criminal history records, domestic violence convictions, and information on individuals who are prohibited from possessing firearms for mental-health related reasons.         

Unfortunately, background checks alone will not stop a typical school shooter. After all, under Pennsylvania law, a person must be 18 years or older to possess or transport a handgun. And under federal law, a person must be 18 to purchase a long gun and related ammunition from a federal firearms licensee, and must be 21 to purchase a handgun and related ammunition from a federal firearms licensee, unless they meet a certain exception, such as an employment or hunting need. Since 1994, it has been a federal offense for any unlicensed person to transfer a handgun or handgun ammunition to anyone under the age of 18.           

My Office will continue to prosecute straw purchasers and those who illegally buy and sell firearms. But as we know all too well, many of those involved in planning or following through with a school shooting steal or borrow a legally purchased firearm from a family member or friend. According to the FBI, 68% of school shooters acquired the weapon used from their own home or that of a relative.

We strive to hold individuals accountable under federal law who threaten school shootings. In my first few months in office, as District Attorney Copeland mentioned, the U.S. Attorney’s Office federally charged a case that came out of this very County. In June of this year, An-Tso Sun was federally charged with possessing ammunition while being in the United States on a nonimmigrant visa, which is a felony under federal law. On March 26, 2018, Sun told another student from Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast High School, “Hey, don’t come to school on May 1st . . . I’m going to come here armed and shoot up the school. Just kidding.” The student reported this conversation to a school official. Subsequently, multiple items were recovered from Sun’s bedroom, including approximately 1,600 rounds of ammunition, a cross bow and arrows, and various firearm accessories and shooting equipment. Sun pleaded guilty to this federal charge at the end of August, and the sentencing hearing is scheduled for December.           

Sun was initially charged in Delaware County by District Attorney Copeland’s Office, with making terroristic threats; he pleaded guilty to that charge in early June and was sentenced to 4-23 months incarceration. The federal charge related to his illegal possession of ammunition – a charge, I would like to point out, that is an aggravated felony that will operate as a permanent bar to his reentry into this country.          

So what can we learn from the Sun case? First, I am proud to say that this was another example of numerous investigative and operational bodies working together. From the school officials to the Upper Darby Police Department and the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, to the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations and my Office, these community and law enforcement officials worked together to successfully prevent a potential school tragedy and ensure that justice prevailed in the court system.

To me, the true hero in this story is the student who heard the alleged threat and reported the incident to school officials. Thank you to that student for being a good citizen and reporting it. I know everyone in this room knows this, but it cannot be said too often: if you see something or hear something, you need to say something. Countless incidents have been averted because of vigilant people speaking up – students, teachers, and school administrators alike.

That is why today’s summit is so important. Every class today is hands-on: workshops concerning conflict management, personal self-defense, and securing and defending the classroom. Schools are already putting significant systems in place: for example, each school in Delaware County has DelPass, an alarm system in the Administrative Office that immediately notifies 911 of any incident and allows police and law enforcement officials to respond to the school immediately.

Delaware County also has put systems in place to help not just during or after an incident, but also to prevent an incident. There is a county-wide teen help line that is available for any kids to call and talk about issues. There is also the Mobile Crisis Team that provides help and services on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week. These mental health services are provided to the individual, and if necessary, to the family as a whole. 

These types of mental health services can help before something happens. But that is easy to say. As a parent myself, I know that it can be incredibly difficult to know when a teenager – dealing with hormones and peer pressure and sometimes speaking recklessly – is a threat, versus simply having a bad day or struggling with a challenging but manageable issue. In speaking with the FBI’s Campus Liaison and head of its Active Shooter Program here in Philadelphia, one thing that I thought was helpful was that he encourages teachers and parents to determine a baseline for normal behavior for each student in the first few weeks of school. It is then easier to assess if any one student drops below that baseline. The FBI has estimated that 93% of attackers planned out the attack in advance, and 93% of attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the attack that caused others to be concerned. Knowing a child’s baseline can help each of us determine if something has become amiss.

And in this day and age, there is no establishing a baseline without familiarizing yourself with a child’s technology habits. I’m curious, by a show of hands, how many of you check your child’s cell phone on a regular (at least weekly) basis? For those of you who do, that is the right instinct to have. But your inquiry cannot end there. I know many of the adults here are familiar with Facebook and Twitter; if only our children would use the websites that we use. But how many of you check your child’s Snapchat account? How about Instagram? Or Kik? Or WhatsApp? Or WeChat? Or Whisper? Or Yik Yak? And the list goes on. We cannot confront these issues without knowing what is happening in our children’s lives, and in the 21st century, their lives often play out on the Internet more than on the playground or the school bus.

After Sun was federally charged, I held a press conference at the U.S. Attorney’s Office about the case. I addressed parents, guardians, and all other adults who are responsible for children in their lives. At the end of the day, my Office can prosecute as many cases as we can; our law enforcement officials can train to respond as quickly as they can; and we can continue to have as many forums, workshops, and seminars so that all of our tireless and brave school administrators and teachers are prepared to spot warning signs and to defend their classrooms, if necessary. 

But I firmly believe that the true first responders are the parents and friends of our children. It is parents’ responsibility to know what their children are doing. No child should have access to firearms or other dangerous weapons without their parents’ or guardians’ knowledge. No child should be amassing an arsenal under the nose of the adults in their lives without the adults knowing about it. And when the adults know about it, they should do something about it. Ask questions. Go into your children’s bedrooms and look around. Pay attention to kids’ online behavior and social media accounts. Being a responsible parent means that your children’s business is your business.           

In short, law enforcement cannot do it alone. We need to keep in mind that law enforcement is not the first line of defense. That honor – that duty – belongs to our citizens. They are the ones who will see the first clues that something is amiss in their everyday lives. They are the ones who will get a bad feeling about something at their schools, in their offices, during their social activities, who will need to make the call. There are too many stories of parents, of friends, of neighbors, who belatedly say they “always knew something was off” about someone in their lives, but they did not take action. They need to know that silence is not an option and that the community is there to help.       

And a large part of the “we” answering the call is sitting in this very room. Police would not know where to go, mental health counselors would not know who to help, and my office would not know where to concentrate our efforts without your dedication and attention to the students you help each and every day. Again, if the student from the Sun case had told a school official who was not in-tune with the student body, something much more tragic could have occurred. Thank you to that school official. And thank you all for taking care of our children, keeping them intellectually curious, emotionally supported, and physically safe. The work you do is not easy; it does not always come with great fanfare or the praise and rewards that you deserve. But please know that in my opinion, and in the opinion of law enforcement officials everywhere, you are the vital lynchpin in every community. And I know I speak for many when I say that we are – and will be – forever grateful.          

Thank you, and God bless you all.

Updated October 24, 2018