Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—the mere mention of these names evokes raw and searingly painful images and memories of tragedy and of innocent lives, so full of promise, that have been lost due to violence perpetrated by an unhinged current or former student. Responding to these tragedies effectively in the hope of stopping the next one requires careful analysis and sober reflection.
Peace of mind with respect to the safety of the nation’s students will not be restored by wholesale restrictions on gun ownership or the vilification of fundamental constitutional rights. Rather, if we are to prevent the recurrence of devastating school violence, our approach must be one worthy of the endeavor to value and protect life: an approach that is fact-based, practical, and holistic.
The Kids Are All Right: An Analysis of School Safety in America
How we define the problem should dictate how we understand and respond to it. One of the main problems with analyzing the relative safety of schoolchildren in America is the lack of a standard definition of what type of incident constitutes a “school shooting.” Different organizations have compiled data sets using a wide variety of standards for inclusion, and this has resulted in significant confusion about the scope of the danger posed to children by guns on school campuses. The most helpful definitions for purposes of understanding student safety are those that focus only on instances in which firearms are used to harm students or staff during school hours but that also exclude suicides.
When evaluating claims regarding the prevalence of school shootings in the United States, it is always important to note the parameters used by the claimant to define “school shooting.” For example, the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety (Everytown) makes the dramatic claim that 18 school shootings occurred during the first six weeks of 2018. What many people fail to realize, though, is that Everytown uses an extremely broad definition of the term “school shooting” and includes all incidents in which “a firearm was discharged inside a school building or on school or campus grounds.” Hence, Everytown counts accidental discharges, suicides, incidents that did not result in injury, and shootings that took place outside of school hours involving persons unaffiliated with the school. The “18 school shootings” include an incident that occurred between nonstudents in a high school parking lot at 8 p.m., well after school hours, in which no one was injured. Everytown also counts an incident in which a 31-year-old man shot himself in the parking lot of a closed-down elementary school.
In other words, the “18 school shootings” claim, while certainly attention-grabbing, is misleading and does little to answer the major question posed by worried parents: “How likely is it that my child will be killed by a firearm at school today?”
Since 1992, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has tracked “school-associated violent deaths,” including a subcategory of “homicides of youth ages 5–18 at school.” This provides a much more accurate—but not perfect—indication of how safe children are on school property during school hours. One of the drawbacks, however, is that the NCES does not distinguish between firearm-related and nonfirearm-related homicides. Nor does it include violent deaths that occur on college campuses.
Similarly, the FBI records “active shooter situations” on school grounds, defined as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people” on school property. The FBI breaks the incidents down by location (whether it occurred at a primary, secondary, or higher education facility); gives information on the context of the active-shooter situation; and records resulting fatalities and injuries. Like the NCES statistics, this information is useful for understanding school violence, but its limitations must also be taken into account: Although it is helpful to understand the number of times each year that individuals undertake to harm others with a firearm on school property, not every active-shooter incident indicates an attempt to kill students on a Columbine-esque scale. For example, the FBI includes a 2003 incident in West Virginia where a man began shooting during a Kanawha County Board of Education meeting and tried to a set a board member on fire. Shootings like these raise concerns for several reasons, but not because they reflect a security risk to schoolchildren in the classroom during school hours.
Productive conversations about increasing the safety of schools in the United States cannot occur without a clear, accurate understanding of the threats posed to them. For these reasons, this paper takes great care to explain in detail and to qualify the claims made regarding the various reports of school shooting incidents.
Columbine-style school shootings are devastating but highly unusual events. Every violent death on school property is obviously abhorrent and a tragedy that this nation should seek to prevent. Statistically speaking, however, such events are still highly infrequent. In particular, shootings during normal classroom hours that result in injuries or death are incredibly rare in America’s primary and secondary schools. Out of the more than 55 million K–12 students across the nation’s public and private schools, an average of 10 students are killed every year by gunfire at school. To put this number perspective, over 800 students die every year during regular travel to and from school.
Even rarer on K–12 campuses are the types of high-profile, multiple-casualty shooting rampages characterized by names like Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland. Since 1990, America’s 100,000 public primary and secondary schools have experienced 22 on-campus shootings that resulted in two or more fatalities (excluding the shooter), for an average of less than one multiple-fatality shooting per year. Most of these multiple-fatality shootings were not “Columbine-style” mass shootings: Of the 22 incidents since 1990, only nine involved the deaths of four or more people. Since 2000, there have been 17 shootings at K–12 schools that resulted in two or more injuries.
While it appears that the frequency and lethality of high-profile school shootings have increased in recent years, this is not the first time America has seen this sort of uptick, nor is it necessarily the worst five-year period of school violence the country has experienced. Since 2013 and including the Parkland shooting, there have been five multiple-fatality shootings at K–12 schools, resulting in 27 deaths. But between 1995 and 1999, the height of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, there were seven multiple-fatality shootings, resulting in 33 deaths. During the last five years of the 20th century, there was so much public anxiety over school shooting deaths that President Bill Clinton established a White House committee of experts to advise him on the subject.
Statistically, schools are the safest places for America’s children to be at any given time. Often lost amid concerns over high-profile, multiple-casualty school shootings is the reality that a number of factors threaten the overall safety of America’s schoolchildren: gang violence, bullying, nonfirearm-related deaths, and—especially in recent years—student mental health crises and suicide. Each of these issues is certainly important in its own right and in some cases can have profound and long-lasting negative impacts that rival those of school shootings, but even beyond this reality stands an even more profound truth: Statistically, schools are the safest places for America’s children to be at any given time on any given day.
While none of this is meant to take away from the tragedies that have occurred or the urgent need to address them, America’s primary and secondary schools are safer than they have been in decades, and violent deaths of any kind rarely occur on school property. Four times as many children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than are killed today, and the number of shooting incidents involving students has been declining steadily for the past 30 years. The percentage of students carrying weapons to school also appears to be dropping, and during the 2014–2015 school year, the national rate of firearm possession incidents at school was three per 100,000 students for a total of 1,500 incidents.
Less than 3 percent of all youth homicides occur on a school campus, even though it is where youths spend a large portion of their time. Since 1992, when the NCES began to compile data on school-related violent deaths, the highest number of on-campus student homicides at K–12 schools in a single school year has been 34, which occurred during the 1992–1993 and 1997–1998 school years. During the 2013–2014 school year, the NCES concluded that there was approximately one student homicide or suicide at school for every 2.8 million enrolled students. Meanwhile, an average of 50 children ages 7 to 18 are murdered by their parents every year.
In other words, school-age children are roughly five times more likely to be killed by their own parents than they are to suffer a violent death while at school.
Who Commits School Shootings and Why?
School shooters often exhibit the same signs of increasingly violent and dysfunctional behavior. Like public mass murderers generally, young adults who commit violent attacks at schools are significantly more likely than the average population to suffer from undiagnosed or untreated mental illness. Even when serious mental illness is not present, school attackers almost always exhibit common traits of extreme resentfulness, anger, and a desire for revenge because of perceived social alienation. It is not uncommon for a school attacker to have acted in increasingly disruptive and violent ways before the shooting, but for a variety of reasons, the individual was not involuntarily committed to a mental health institution or ordered by a court to receive mental health treatment.
This does not mean that mental health disorders are synonymous with violence: In fact, the vast majority of individuals suffering from mental health disorders will never commit violent acts. It does mean, however, that the early identification and treatment of students with mental health disorders is of particular importance in reducing large-scale violent attacks at schools.
School attackers often “leak” their intentions to their peers, whether in person or via social media. For example, one of the Columbine attackers wrote online blogs that included statements about his desire to kill those who annoyed him, as well as specific violent threats directed against his classmates and teachers. Before gunning down 17 students in Florida, the Parkland attacker was reported to the FBI for a YouTube posting in which he bragged about becoming a “professional school shooter.” He also reportedly joked to classmates on numerous occasions that he would be the one to “shoot up a school.” Other school attackers note their intentions less directly by praising other infamous massacres, completing writing projects focused on brutal violence or rampage killings, or exhibiting an unusual obsession with firearms.
It is essential that teachers and other school professionals be attuned to these warning signs and take appropriate action up to and including engaging with outside mental health professionals and local law enforcement officials.
School shooters often come from broken homes. Apart from warning signs manifested by school shooters directly, familial dynamics may also play a role in the early detection of students on the verge of committing catastrophic acts of violence. Sadly, a majority of school attackers also come from broken homes, often growing up in situations characterized by divorce, domestic violence, or absent fathers. This does not mean that all students with difficult home lives should be considered potential school attackers or that students with intact, stable families should have troubling behaviors overlooked or dismissed. It may mean, however, that holistic approaches to school safety should include an appreciation of the impact that a chaotic family life can have on a student’s feelings of desperation and violent actions.
The Parkland attacker, who was raised alone by his adoptive mother since the age of six, was merely the latest in a long line of troubled young men who grew up in less than ideal family situations.
- The attackers at Sandy Hook, Chadron High School, Isla Vista, SuccessTech Academy, Northern Illinois University, and Santana High School (just to name a few) all had divorced parents.
- The young man who killed his grandfather before murdering seven of his classmates at Red Lake Senior High School had parents who never married, a father who shot himself, and a mother and stepfather who divorced; he also lived with a grandmother who was separated from her husband.
- Similarly, the teenager who shot five students at Chadron High School in 2012 had divorced parents, his father had been arrested numerous times for violent crimes against women, and his mother had criminal convictions for domestic violence.
The unfortunate fact that broken family relationships are often associated with greater risk factors for youths is nothing new: For decades, study after study has shown that stable, intact families play a vital role in developing thriving children and adolescents. Adolescents living in intact families are less likely to exhibit violent behaviors or engage in physical fighting, and youths in fatherless homes are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than are those from two-parent homes. Several studies have found that adolescents from intact families tend to report lower levels of emotional and psychological stress, while those who do not live with both biological parents are more likely to exhibit psychological affective disorders such as hyperactivity, irritability, and depression as adults. One in-depth study published in the journal Lancet concluded that children of single-parent homes had more frequent health problems as adults and were at a much higher risk of suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse. The study also found that, based on the data compiled, a child’s parental situation had the same importance as socioeconomic affiliation in predicting addiction and suicide attempts in adolescents.
Along these same lines, the importance of having actively involved fathers and father figures cannot be overstated when it comes to the mental and emotional development of children. Fathers are “important to their sons as role models. They are important for maintaining authority and discipline. And they are important in helping their sons to develop both self-control and feelings of empathy toward others, character traits that are found to be lacking in violent youth.” Adolescents who report having a close relationship with their fathers tend to report lower levels of psychological stress and exhibit lower levels of aggression, depression, and antisocial behavior. At least one body of research suggests that boys living in single-mother homes are almost twice as likely to end up as juvenile delinquents compared to boys who enjoy good relationships with their fathers.
Psychologist Marsha Kline Pruett notes that “[f]athers tend to be more willing than mothers to confront their children and enforce discipline, leaving their children with the impression that they in fact have more authority.” On the other hand, mothers are more likely to reason with their children and rely on their emotional ties to encourage good behavior, giving the co-parents a diverse but balanced disciplinary approach, and while caring, involved fathers can certainly exist outside of marriage, they are statistically more likely to be found inside the context of marriage.
The frequency of school shootings may be related to economic insecurity. Additional socioeconomic trends may provide clues to identify further risk factors related to school violence. A recent major study by criminologists at Northwestern University looked at the effect of economic conditions on the prevalence of school shootings and concluded that there is a significant correlation between periods of increased economic insecurity and periods of increased gun violence at schools. The findings are particularly robust in that the effects are seen across several different economic indicators (other than unemployment), and the relationship remains even when analyzing the data on national, regional, and city levels.
The researchers noted that the results of this study are in line with other evidence that joblessness is related to low self-esteem and detrimental behavior, that minors are responsive to the unemployment of their parents, and that the attitudes of youths have a significant impact on their future economic outcomes. They further posited that “gun violence at schools is a response, in part, to the breakdown of the expectation that sustained participation in the educational system will improve economic opportunities and outcomes.”
This suggestion is profound in the context of the backgrounds of many individuals who commit violent attacks at schools and were either struggling to finish or failed to finish their educations and had limited future economic opportunities.
- The Sandy Hook attacker was removed from high school by his parents due to sensory-integration disorder, failed to obtain a degree after attending classes at Western Connecticut State University, and was unemployed without any likelihood of holding a job in the near future.
- The Parkland attacker had been expelled from high school for disciplinary problems, was taking adult education classes to get his GED, and worked at a Dollar Store.
- The Isla Vista attacker graduated high school but dropped out of a local college within a year and was investigated by local law enforcement because of concerns about the state of his mental health.
Ineffective Responses to School Shootings
Legislation commonly proposed to combat school shootings is not based on fact and will not save lives. In the wake of tragic violence at schools, gun control advocates often push for the same “commonsense gun laws” that they claim will prevent future school shootings. Though no doubt well-intentioned, the policies usually demanded by these advocates—raising the minimum age for gun purchases and banning so-called assault weapons—would do little to save lives and seem to be based more on emotions than on factual analysis. Such policies also tend to divide the country, making people believe that they must make a false choice between protecting constitutional rights and protecting the nation’s schoolchildren.
State laws differ with regard to the age at which a person can legally purchase a firearm, but states typically allow persons over the age of 18 to purchase long guns (such as shotguns and rifles) and persons over the age of 21 to purchase handguns. Although raising the minimum age for firearm purchase may seem on its face like a good way to prevent would-be school shooters from accessing firearms, the reality is that most school shooters are not purchasing their own firearms in the first place. The majority of school shooters under the minimum age for gun purchase use firearms legally owned by immediate family members or friends, to which they had ready access at home. This continues to be the case despite the fact that the number of high school students reporting easy access to loaded firearms at home has decreased significantly over the past two decades, dropping to 4 percent in 2015.
In other words, raising the minimum age for purchase makes it more difficult for law-abiding young adults to defend themselves, go hunting, or participate in shooting competitions, but it does little to address the principal ways by which school shooters obtain their firearms. Between the ages of 18 and 20, many young adults will leave their parents’ home to live on their own, and still others will get married and start families. Federal courts upholding the federal prohibition on handgun possession for persons under 21 have relied partially on the fact that these law-abiding adults still had the ability to purchase long guns for defense of house and home. Even assuming it were constitutional, are we really prepared to deprive young adults of any means of adequate self-defense for themselves and their families—while at the same time holding them responsible enough for mortgages, student loans, marriage, and child-bearing—with the full knowledge that it would not likely have prevented a single school shooting?
Banning purchases of so-called assault weapons” would similarly skirt around the real threats faced by students without doing much to keep them safe. School shootings, like all shootings, are much more likely to be carried out by handguns or shotguns than by “assault weapons.” Roughly six out of 10 mass shootings of any kind are carried out with handguns alone, and only one in 10 is carried out with a rifle alone. In fact, some of the deadliest school shootings have been perpetrated with low-caliber handguns:
- The Virginia Tech shooter used a .22 handgun and a 9mm handgun to kill 33 individuals;
- The Red Lake shooter used a shotgun, a .40 handgun, and a .22 handgun to kill 10 people; and
- The Umpqua Community College shooter killed nine students with nothing larger than a .40 handgun.
Even when mass shooters use “assault weapons” like the AR-15, studies have shown that their rates of fire are consistent with mass shooters who used “non-assault weapons,” and the shooter could have caused just as much damage with a handgun and multiple magazines. By focusing on one particular type of scary-sounding but rarely used firearm, advocates are ignoring a more troubling underlying fact: There are a great many ways to cause lethal injuries to large numbers of people.
Stricter gun control laws do not ensure school safety. Countries with strict gun control laws have not been immune from multiple-casualty school shootings, and the rates of death per million students experienced by some of these countries are quite comparable to the rates seen in the United States. For example, Germany has one of the most restrictive gun control systems in Europe, yet in 2002, a 19-year-old recently expelled from his Erfurt high school used a handgun to kill 16 people at the school before turning the gun on himself. In response, Germany passed a law requiring psychological evaluations for any person under the age of 25 who applies for a firearm ownership license. Despite this measure, just four years later in 2006, an 18-year-old former student shot and wounded eight people (five of whom were students) in Emsdetten and then committed suicide. After this shooting, Germany restricted the sales of violent video games to juveniles. This, too, failed to stop school shootings in the country: In 2009, a 17-year-old in Winnendon used a handgun to kill 15 people at his former school.
Meanwhile, in France and Finland, where all firearm owners must have a firearms license and all firearms must be registered, four school shootings have claimed the lives of 22 people and injured dozens more since 2007.
At the same time, China has experienced numerous instances of mass-casualty attacks on schoolchildren, none of which was carried out with a firearm. In 2004, a man entered a high school dormitory, stabbed eight boys to death while they were sleeping in their beds, and injured three more before attempting to commit suicide. That same year, an elementary school teacher suffering from schizophrenia killed four of her students with a knife, injured another nine, and attempted to kidnap 65 others. In 2006, an 18-year-old reportedly upset with a kindergarten teacher who rejected his romantic advances set her classroom on fire, injuring five and killing 12. In 2010, a total of 18 children were killed in four separate school knife attacks, and in 2012, a mentally ill man seriously injured 22 young children at a school in central China. Just last year, another 12 children were wounded by a knife-wielding attacker in southern China. Mass-casualty knife attacks are such a substantial problem in China that the government has recently adopted measures to register, regulate, and seize knives.
Using gun control as the lens through which to view school safety is simply not an effective way to protect students. Even if every single gun in this country were confiscated and the ability to import or manufacture firearms eliminated, the underlying realities that caused the public to worry about school shootings would still exist, and people intent on causing harm at school would still have ample opportunity to do so.
The number of school-related bomb threat incidents in the United States saw an unprecedented increase during the 2015–2016 school year. In fact, just weeks after the highly publicized shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a Utah teen inspired by ISIS brought a homemade bomb to school. The lives of many students were saved only because, by sheer happenstance, the would-be bomber had not constructed the detonation device properly. It is further worth noting that the deadliest school attack in the history of the United States was carried out by firebombing, not firearms: In 1927, a disaffected school board member in Bath, Michigan, used two explosive devices to kill 44 people, including 38 students.
No amount of gun control will create stable families or treat mental health issues. Criminalizing the possession of an “assault” weapon will not provide resources for teenagers in need of academic support or psychological counseling. The most restrictive interpretations of the Second Amendment will never stop an angry, despairing child from taking his life or the lives of others. If saving the lives of students and enhancing school safety is truly the objective, we need to widen our aperture.
Effective Responses to School Shootings: Practical, Fact-Based, and Holistic
Even though America’s schools are among the safest places for children, there still are measures that can be taken to make them even safer not just against threats of school violence, but also against the threats underlying most youth violence and negative outcomes: untreated mental health problems, unstable family lives, and economic difficulties. These types of responses hit at the very core of the problem and are much more likely to protect the safety of the nation’s students and produce capable, thriving young adults.
Fast, armed responses save lives. Perhaps the most immediate and concrete action that communities can take to increase school security is to treat our students as worthy of the same protection we afford fans at sporting events and concerts. Most people would think nothing of providing a half-dozen armed security personnel for 3,100 people attending a rock concert, but when it comes to 3,100 students on a high school campus, communities too often think that one armed security officer is enough—and many communities think that is one too many. But if the safety of students is to be taken seriously and not used merely as a tool to advance a political agenda, communities should consider the reality of active-shooter situations: Every second cut out of the time it takes to engage in an armed confrontation with a shooter is vital to saving lives.
According to several studies of public mass shootings in general and school shootings in particular, almost two-thirds of active-shooter incidents end before local law enforcement officers arrive to confront the shooter. One study analyzed all active-shooter incidents occurring on college and university campuses and concluded that the average duration of these events was 12.5 minutes, while the average response time of campus and local law enforcement was 18 minutes. An FBI study of all active-shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013 similarly concluded that “[t]he findings reflect the damage that can occur in a matter of minutes.” Of the incidents where the FBI could ascertain the duration of the shooting, almost 70 percent ended in under five minutes, and the report noted that, according to the 2007 National Crime Victimization Survey, law enforcement was only able to respond to 53.4 percent of reported violent crimes in under 10 minutes.
Further, when law enforcement officers do arrive while a shooting is ongoing, the shooter’s knowledge of imminent armed confrontation is often the catalyst that prompts the shooter to surrender or commit suicide. For example, armed confrontation ended the shooter’s targeting of victims at Sullivan Central High School in Tennessee, Reynolds High School in Oregon, Pearl High School in Mississippi, Arapahoe High School in Colorado, and Price Middle School in Atlanta. Even at Columbine and Sandy Hook, the arrival of armed police officers prevented further loss of life. Fatalities and injuries from mass-casualty shootings occur in a very short window of time, and lives would likely be saved by ensuring that active shooters are confronted with armed resistance as soon as possible.
The usefulness of armed school security is especially evident in Israel, where a national law requires schools with more than 100 students to employ an armed guard. While it is true that American schoolchildren do not regularly face threats of terrorism and Israelis are armed by their government to face many external threats, the lessons are equally applicable: After gunmen attacked an Israeli school in 1974, killing almost two dozen students, Israel did not declare schools “gun-free zones.” On the contrary, it mandated armed security, provided weapons training to teachers, and started running regular active-shooter drills. There have been very few school shootings since that time, and most have ended with armed adults killing violent attackers before they could inflict mass casualties.
Gun-free zones in the United States have proven to be effective not at preventing gun violence, but at drawing gun violence—not just at schools, but at all gun-free locations. In fact, most studies show that roughly 90 percent of mass public shootings, including school shootings, occur in places where civilians are not permitted to carry firearms. Although some gun control organizations correctly point out that mass public shooters can have many different motivations for choosing their targets, there is a plethora of evidence that many do in fact take into account the likelihood of being confronted by armed resistance. For example:
- In 2016, an eighth-grader in South Carolina recently expelled from his middle school was arrested after attempting a mass shooting at an elementary school playground. His handgun jammed after the first shot, but he told authorities that he had planned to kill “around 50 or 60” people. He explained in his confession that he chose this specific elementary school instead of his own middle school in large part because it had no armed security, and he calculated that he would have at least 15 minutes before an armed response arrived.
- It is well documented that the Aurora movie theater attacker abandoned his original plan to attack an airport because of the “substantial security” and that his eventual target was the only one of the seven theaters within 20 minutes of his apartment to ban permitted concealed handguns.
- The Isla Vista attacker similarly explained in his “manifesto” that he ruled out various targets because he worried that he might be stopped by someone with a firearm.
- The Charleston attacker initially planned an attack at the College of Charleston but decided to attack a predominantly African American church instead after reading that the college employed armed guards.
Currently, many school districts in the United States either employ armed resource officers or work out deals with local law enforcement agencies to place officers at or near schools. In some of the country’s largest school districts, there are more armed security officers per 1,000 students than there are school counselors, in part because of conscious decisions by these school districts to focus limited resources on concrete means of immediately stopping threats. But this is a costly endeavor both for schools and for the communities around them, and hiring the number of armed security personnel necessary to provide adequate safety for students may not be feasible for some school districts.
There are approximately 100,000 public elementary and secondary schools and another 33,000 private schools in the U.S. As of 2012 (the most recent year for which the Department of Justice has compiled numbers), there were 750,000 full-time “sworn” law enforcement officers and another 325,000 “non-sworn” officers. Even if local law enforcement agencies were to place just one officer at every school during classroom hours, the result would be a drastic reduction in the number of law enforcement officers available for service calls and emergency response within local communities. Nor is simply hiring more school resource officers necessarily an easy solution. Studies by Cleveland State University estimate that the annual cost of hiring and training new security guards is between $80,000 and $100,000, an amount that is likely prohibitive for many school districts.
In response to this reality, Representative Mark Meadows (R–NC) has proposed legislation that would fund a $1.5 billion initiative to help states and localities put more law enforcement officers in schools. Several schools have also opted for more creative arrangements with local law enforcement, such as locating police substations within or next to school buildings.
Armed teachers are a threat to violent attackers but not to students. For school districts that find it financially infeasible to hire additional security guards, there may be a more practical way to decrease the response time of armed first responders: arming qualified and willing teachers and administrators already on campus and training them to confront violent individuals in emergencies. Although armed teachers should serve only as a last line of defense against violent school attacks, they can be an important means of deterring, confronting, and eliminating threats to the safety of students. Despite the various assertions by gun control advocates that arming teachers is a foolish measure that is likely to result in the deaths of more students, there already are thousands of armed teachers in schools across the country—not one of whom has misused his or her firearm to threaten, harm, or kill students. Utah, for instance, has allowed teachers with concealed carry permits to arm themselves on the state’s K–12 campuses since 1995. There has been exactly one instance of negligent firearm use by a teacher in that time and not a single recorded student injury or death.
Similarly, Alaska, Alabama, Rhode Island, Oregon, Wyoming, and New Hampshire allow teachers to conceal-carry on public school campuses, and none of these states has experienced a single incident of negligent firearms use by a teacher, much less a spike in student deaths at the hands of gun-toting adults. Several other states also allow for teachers to be armed under certain circumstances on K–12 campuses, with varying degrees of approval required from the individual schools or school districts. In Pennsylvania, where private schools apparently may choose to allow staff members to arm themselves while on campus, there has been only one reported example of negligent firearm use: An elementary school teacher left a holstered handgun on the back of a toilet tank in a unisex, one-toilet restroom where it was discovered by students. Like the incident in Utah, no students were harmed, and the teacher resigned after being charged with reckless endangerment.
This is not to say that such an incident might not occur at some point in the future, but given the hundreds of school districts across the country where teachers are regularly permitted to carry firearms on campus, any problems associated with the practice have had ample time and opportunity to manifest themselves. In reality, the practice of arming teachers has not resulted in a single student injury or death, and the number of negligent mishaps has been incredibly small. This is hardly surprising given that concealed carry permit holders as a group are some of the country’s most careful and most law-abiding citizens.
In Ohio, teachers with concealed carry licenses must leave their firearms locked in their cars unless they have written permission from their school district to do otherwise. At least a handful of school districts in the state keep guns hidden in safes throughout the school, accessible in emergencies only to staff members meeting the strict requirements for the school’s “armed response team.” The state offers funding for schools that want to train their staffs to respond to emergency situations, and the nonprofit Faculty/Administrator Safety Training & Response (FASTER) program offers 26 hours of intensive, hands-on active-shooter training for teachers and administrators at no cost to the individuals or school district.
FASTER has trained over 1,300 school staff members from 225 school districts in 12 states since it started as a response to the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. This program not only provides an excellent framework for cost-effective and reliable school safety measures, but also is further proof that the arming of responsible and willing adults in schools does not lead to chaos and death.
Schools can build safer infrastructures without turning classrooms into prisons. Even without arming teachers or hiring additional armed security officers, changes in a school’s infrastructure can help to prevent violence and contain violent incidents when they do occur. For example:
- One of the least expensive but most effective measures is the use of door barricades, which typically consist of small, portable rods or wedges that can be placed on doorframes within seconds and prevent intruders from physically entering a room.
- In the past few years, a number of schools have installed “safe rooms,” which often serve dual functions as a tornado shelter and protection during active-shooter situations. Such rooms can typically be locked from the inside and are made of materials that cannot be penetrated even by powerful (and heavily regulated) automatic weapons.
- Along similar lines, schools can replace classroom windows with bulletproof glass, which, though expensive, would likely have saved the lives of many students in previous school shootings.
- Another measure available to schools is to install a system of layered zoning and door locks than can be used to contain an active threat in one small location, inhibiting the ability of the violent individual to move between floors and buildings to target larger numbers of people.
America’s schools and communities desperately need better mental health services. Current estimates suggest that as many as one in five K–12 students in the United States show signs of a mental health problem every year, but nearly 80 percent of those five million students will not receive any form of counseling, therapy, or medication. Although school staff members are frequently in the best position to recognize signs of mental health problems, they often lack the training to identify and help students on the verge of a mental health crisis.
Too often, high school students concerned about their mental health have difficulty accessing counseling or treatment because their school districts have not allocated adequate resources to providing mental health support. Although schools have seen considerable increases in nonteaching staff over the past five decades, many schools either do not have a full-time nurse, psychologist, or counselor or share one with other schools. Even in schools that have on-campus mental health centers, there are not nearly enough resources. In a typical school district, there is only one counselor per 500 students, one nurse per 1,200 students, and one psychologist per 1,400 students.
Congress has recently taken steps to help fill these gaps, introducing various bills that would create federal grant programs to help schools identify signs of violence and intervene early enough to prevent students from harming themselves or others. One of the proposals currently under consideration is the Students, Teachers, and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Act of 2018, which appears to have broad bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. The funds would be distributed to schools to enable them to implement evidence-based programs designed to prevent on-campus shootings and other violent activities. Such programs could include installing new technologies and equipment to improve a school’s security infrastructure, developing and operating anonymous reporting systems to enable students and others to report threats of school violence, developing school threat assessments and training Behavioral Intervention Teams (BITs), and facilitating coordination with local law enforcement officials.
It is important to note, however, that although these bills can help to raise awareness of school safety issues and could help to kick-start local programs, they are not substitutes for long-term commitments by state and local officials and local communities.
Behavioral Intervention Teams in particular have shown promise as a proactive way to identify red flags in student behavior and address threats and crises in a coordinated and holistic manner before they turn violent. When staff, students, or family members report disruptive, problematic, or seemingly dangerous behaviors by an individual student, the BIT investigates and assesses the nature of the concern, develops a plan of intervention and support, and oversees and coordinates its implementation. These targeted intervention plans may include disability support, academic assistance, referrals to mental health providers, and treatment requirements. Although common on college campuses, BITs are not yet widely available as tools for increasing positive student outcomes in primary and secondary schools.
Financially struggling districts could consider sharing BITs across multiple schools, using social workers on an on-call basis, and investing in teacher development to help identify the signs of stress, suicidal thoughts, or other disturbing behaviors in the classroom. Even if a school cannot directly provide the necessary services, it can identify students who may benefit from such services and refer them to the right resources in the community. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R–TN) suggested in an address to the Council of Chief State School Officers that states could also use money currently allocated under Titles II and IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act (formerly the No Child Left Behind Act) to address “mental health, hiring more school counselors and steps for violence prevention.”
“Red flag” laws give law enforcement more options for disarming the dangerous. More removed from the concept of on-campus mental health services but equally valuable in the discussion surrounding the mental health of the nation’s students is the general lack of intermediate measures available to prevent a troubled youth from harming himself or others. On the least intensive, least intrusive side of the spectrum are voluntary treatment programs, whether through school-based or community-based mental health services, and school-based “diversion” programs for behavioral correction. These types of services can be effective with cooperative individuals but have relatively little authority to induce the cooperation of individuals who do not otherwise wish to participate actively. On the other end of the spectrum are the highly intensive, highly intrusive mental health court systems and involuntary civil commitment procedures with high standards of proof, the full weight of government force, and potential life-long consequences.
Rarely are there adequate options between these two extremes. That does not, however, necessarily have to be the case.
In the wake of Parkland, politicians and commentators have sparked a renewed interest in Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs) and so-called red flag laws, concepts already used by some states to limit the ability of individuals to access firearms when they are exhibiting signs of mental health crisis or dangerous behavior. The specifics vary from state to state, but the general idea is that courts may issue search warrants to seize the firearms of individuals upon the affidavit of a law enforcement officer explaining why the individual presents an imminent risk of harm, either to self or to others, due to mental illness, emotionally unstable conduct, personal crisis, or other behaviors that support a reasonable belief that the person has a propensity toward violence. After the firearms are seized, the state has a limited time in which to conduct an evidentiary hearing where it must prove beyond some heightened burden of proof that the individual does indeed pose a risk of imminent harm to self or others. Sometimes, under exigent circumstances, law enforcement officers may seize the firearms without a warrant, but a judge must subsequently find that there was probable cause to do so, often within 48 hours of the seizure.
Perhaps the best example of a red flag law in practice is Indiana’s “Jake Laird Law.” Under this statute, law enforcement officers may remove firearms from the possession of individuals if there is probable cause to believe the person poses an imminent risk of harm to self or others. If the officer seizes the weapons without first obtaining a search warrant from a judge, he must submit a written statement to the court within 48 hours describing why the individual is considered dangerous. The firearms can remain seized only if the court subsequently determines that probable cause exists. In every case where probable cause is found to exist, the individual whose firearms were seized must be afforded an evidentiary hearing no more than 14 days after the seizure, and the state must prove at that hearing by clear and convincing evidence that the person is “dangerous” as defined by the statute. If the state fails to meet this burden, the firearms must be returned to the owner. If the state does meet its burden, the individual who is determined to be dangerous may petition the court for the return of the firearm after 180 days. After a petition to have the firearms returned has been filed, the state must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the person remains dangerous under the statute.
These types of red flag laws have many benefits. For example:
- They focus on dangerous behavior instead of a clinical diagnosis of mental illness, closing a loophole that has often allowed violent individuals to access firearms simply because they lacked a disqualifying criminal conviction or involuntary civil commitment for mental health problems.
- They often induce otherwise uncooperative individuals to seek mental health treatment or crisis counseling voluntarily in order to have their firearms returned to them, and they do so in a way that does not necessarily result in the types of life-long rights disabilities imposed by criminal convictions and civil commitments.
- They remove firearms from dangerous individuals expeditiously while still affording them due process rights and limiting the likelihood of mistake or arbitrary seizure.
- They are one of the few mechanisms that could realistically have prevented a significant number of mass shootings.
We must address the underlying cultural factors related to youth violence. As noted, there is strong evidence connecting decreased family stability and religious involvement with increased risks of youth violence. These factors do not garner the same attention after violent school incidents that is given to gun control proposals and ad hominem attacks on supporters of the Second Amendment. They are, however, the factors that are most directly related to the emotional health and well-being of adolescents. Although beyond the scope of this paper, policies that encourage the creation and maintenance of stable, two-parent families, that acknowledge the important mediating effects of religious institutions on society, and that focus on removing barriers to educational and economic success for the average American are critically important to increasing the overall fiscal, mental, and emotional health of Americans and would go a long way toward ensuring school safety.
Finally, if the nation is serious about the safety of its students, it must look at the consequences of failing to punish and correct serious wrongdoing by troubled youths. Particularly in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, shooting, questions are being raised about whether an unhealthy emphasis on maintaining low arrest rates among students—even when they commit serious crimes—may have played a role in allowing the shooter to remain capable of obtaining firearms despite obvious warning signs.
While the investigation is still ongoing and many facts are still unknown, it is clear that the Broward County Sheriff’s Department entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Broward County School District to minimize the number of students arrested for various types of criminal activity. This Memorandum of Understanding has a laudable overall goal of seeking to protect high school students from being unnecessarily diverted to the criminal justice system over relatively minor infractions and protecting them from criminal records that might ruin their future educational and employment opportunities. But many have rightly pointed out that as a consequence of such policies, schools often do not adequately investigate and discipline dangerous criminal activity by students, and this failure has created “a school climate catastrophe [that] puts more students at risk.”
Measures taken by the Obama Administration that threatened the loss of federal funds for schools that disciplined too many nonwhite students may also have contributed to this overly lax attitude that some schools display toward student discipline. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter warning that schools could face federal probes and sanctions for disproportionately punishing minority students or otherwise engaging in disciplinary practices that the department considered “discriminatory.” This “punish by the numbers” approach to school discipline induces school officials to overlook disciplinary problems committed by some disruptive students out of a fear that the school will be investigated and lose federal funds—which in turn can lead to unpunished nonviolent disruptive conduct escalating into violent conduct. At least in some cases, it also has led to schools simply “failing to record” suspensions or “warehousing” students in alternative “Success Centers” in order to make it appear as though suspension rates are falling in accordance with the Obama guidance.
It is therefore hardly surprising that teachers have reported being told that student referrals would not be considered suspension-worthy “unless there was blood,” with students repeatedly mocking teachers’ inability to suspend them as a result.
It is clear that the Parkland attacker was never arrested, charged with a crime, or ordered to receive mental health treatment despite numerous instances of apparently criminal and dangerous activity that reflected a serious risk of harm to himself or others.
- According to reports, information forwarded to the school’s resource officer in the year before the shooting reflected that the student “planned to shoot up the school” and was armed with knives and a BB gun. It appears that no action was taken based on that information.
- Months later, a peer counselor at the high school alerted the same resource officer that the student “possibly ingested gasoline” in a suicide attempt and was likely cutting himself. Although the school initiated a “threat assessment,” the Florida Department of Children and Families concluded that he was not at risk of harming himself or others and recommended against seeking civil commitment.
- County law enforcement received 18 calls about the student, five of them specifically regarding his access to weapons, including one in which he was alleged to have held a gun to another child’s head. The student was transferred out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas for threatening others but was not expelled or otherwise disciplined.
- At one point during the months leading up to the attack, the student called 9-1-1 on himself after a violent encounter with his foster family in which he described punching walls and being unable to cope with the emotional hardship of his mother’s recent death.
It is very evident that at many points in the years leading up to the horrific deaths of 17 people in Parkland, Florida, both the school and local law enforcement had numerous interactions with a troubled student, all of which indicated that he posed a serious threat to himself and others. It is equally evident that none of the most common disciplinary measures for assault and threats of violence—suspension, expulsion, arrest, criminal charges—were imposed and that no government agency mandated that he receive much-needed mental health services. What is not clear is whether and to what extent the Memorandum of Understanding and unofficial policies worked out between the Sheriff’s Department and the school district are related to the almost unbelievable reality that such a troubled teenager had no criminal or mental health history to disqualify him from legally purchasing a weapon.
It is important to recognize that mental health resources, early identification of red flags, and all the background checks in the world are no match for a system that does not act on evidence that a person is a danger to self or others. No one seriously suggests that students (and juveniles generally) should be arrested for every instance of misbehavior or that unnecessarily creating criminal histories for high school children is likely to help the country in the long run, but there must be a serious inquiry into the effects of threatening schools with federal probes for undertaking to punish serious misbehavior.
There is no question that people on all sides of the school safety conversation want to protect the nation’s children against threats of violence, whether within the four walls of the classroom or at home and in their neighborhoods. While there is no safer place for children to be than in our schools, recent events at Parkland and elsewhere have highlighted significant concerns about the possibility of devastating attacks even in the hallways of educational institutions.
We can and must do better if we are to guard against future incidents of violence that threaten students. For example, we can:
- Decrease the response time for active threats in schools by increasing the number of armed school resource officers or by allowing trained, qualified, and willing school staff members to carry concealed firearms on campus.
- Increase the safety of schools by changing their physical infrastructures so that they better protect students from active threats without creating a prison-like environment.
- Allocate resources to increase the availability and training of school counselors, nurses, and psychologists, and coordinate school and community mental health services to serve the needs of local districts more effectively.
- Consider the implementation of “red flag” laws that allow police officers to remove firearms from individuals who pose a risk of imminent harm to self or others while still respecting due process and the fundamental importance of the Second Amendment right.
- Address the underlying cultural factors related to youth violence, including the creation and maintenance of stable, intact families, removing barriers to educational and economic success, and allowing schools to punish student misbehavior effectively without the fear of losing federal funding.
Devising and implementing effective measures to address this critical issue will require clear-headed, open-minded, fact-based analyses of proposed policies. Our children deserve nothing less.
—John G. Malcolm is Vice President of the Institute for Constitutional Government, Director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and Ed Gilbertson and Sherry Lindberg Gilbertson Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Amy Swearer is a Visiting Legal Fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.