The horrific violence at a high school in Parkland, FL was, sadly, the eleventh school shooting of 2018. In the days that followed, there were three more school shootings in Louisiana, Ohio, and Florida. These heartbreaking incidents are the latest in what feels like a string of violent events taking place on school campuses, following campus shootings around the country, including in Kentucky, California, Maryland, and Texas.
According to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which defines a school shooting as an incident that occurs on a school campus during school or extracurricular hours and results in a death or injury from gunfire, prior to the 14 school shootings thus far in 2018, there were 75 school shootings in 2017, 80 in 2016, and 55 in 2015.
Parents, schools, and communities want to do everything they can to ensure that students are safe, and parents can play a strong role in promoting schools’ use of security measures and violence-prevention strategies.
To prepare to speak with children of any age in the wake of a school shooting or any violent act, parents can access the American Psychological Association’s guidelines on communicating with and supporting children, the New York Times‘ list of resources for parents and teachers, Scholastic’s guide for teachers and parents, and our article Talking to kids about tragedy.
Schools are the safest places for children
After a school shooting, it’s understandable if you or your child feel that schools are unsafe. However, statistically, children are much safer in school than they are beyond school walls. “Children are far more likely to be shot in a residence, store, street, parking lot, shopping center, or a restaurant than a school,” says Dewey Cornell, professor of education at the University of Virginia and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project. “We cannot let the painful feelings of a tragedy distort our perception of schools.”
Cornell notes that violent threats to children’s safety are a nationwide issue. “National Vital Statistics show that we have more than 300 shootings every day in the U.S. where someone is killed or wounded,” Cornell says. “Far less than 1 percent of shootings occur in schools. We have a gun violence problem, not a school violence problem.”
Every year the federal government issues what it calls a snapshot of school violence. That report, called Indicators of School Crime and Safety, compiles data from several government agencies including the FBI, the Center for Disease Control, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The report looks at victimization, bullying, student perceptions of school safety, and other topics relevant to school climates and security.
The latest school crime and safety report, released in 2017, uses data collected through 2015. The report indicates that:
- The percentage of students who reported being afraid of attack or harm at school fell from 12 percent in 1995 to 3 percent in 2015 (the most recent year for which data is available).
- The percentage of students in grades 9 through 12 who reported carrying a weapon on school property fell from 12 percent in 1993 to 4 percent in 2015.
- Students are more likely to be victims of violence outside of school than inside.
- As of 2015, school-related violence had not increased over the past two decades.
However, as school shootings and other acts of violence continue to occur, there is still much work to be done to improve school safety.
What schools are doing to protect students
In 2012, schools responded to the deadly elementary school shooting in Newtown, CT with an emphasis on school security. Schools have also focused on preparedness in case of a shooting or other violent event. At last count in 2016, 95 percent of schools reported that they drill students on lockdown procedures, and 92 percent reported practicing evacuation procedures. Forty-two percent of all public schools (and 68 percent of public high schools) also employ school resource officers, who are sworn law enforcement officers trained to work in schools.
However, experts say that emphasizing school security is not enough. Cornell calls a singular focus on building security shortsighted. “We should place more emphasis on preventing shootings rather than preparing for them,” he says. “Prevention must start before a gunman shows up at school.”
Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center and professor of psychology at Bridgewater State University, agrees. “During school shootings, even when we’re able to keep children from being harmed physically, the psychological harm is enormous,” she says. “Once violence happens, the damage is done.”
The latest trends in school violence prevention
Both Cornell and Englander recommend that schools and communities pursue programs focused on students’ mental wellness. Innovative approaches across the country include Virginia’s threat assessment program, which was mandated statewide in 2013 to proactively resolve student threats before violent acts occur. Threat assessment programs aim to keep schools safe while addressing underlying issues and helping troubled students. In Utah, a state-wide crisis tipline that’s accessible through an app provides students access to crisis counselors and a confidential means of reporting bullying, violence, and threats. Across the country, educational experts are encouraging schools to teach social and emotional skills and provide access to in-school counseling and support.
Englander says that while many schools do a good job of prevention, their efforts are bound by limited resources. “We need to sink more money into preventing violence in schools, by staffing schools adequately with mental health support staff and by offering training to all educators in violence prevention and social-emotional learning,” she says.
Stan Adamson, a former mental health counselor and anger management specialist at The Door, a Manhattan youth development agency, says that a multipronged approach to violence prevention is best. “There should be no tolerance for serious infractions, but there should be a range of interventions available for behavior problems. A young person needs to learn how to use a social-skills response to a difficult situation rather than an aggressive response. When he experiences some success using these skills to deal with conflict, the student usually becomes motivated to learn more.”
In response to recent shootings, some have called for increased gun presence in schools in order to bolster security. Cornell cautions strongly against that approach. “Arming our teachers is unreasonable, impractical, and dangerous,” he says. “Placing guards at every school entrance would cost an extraordinary amount of money that could be better spent improving our prevention services.”
A move away from old-fashioned detention and suspension
Many schools have transitioned away from traditional punishments that remove kids from the classroom. In their place, schools are moving toward positive behavioral interventions and more comprehensive methods of student support. Old-fashioned suspensions and expulsions do not address the root cause of the behavior that landed the child in trouble to begin with. Ultimately, those punishments place students further at risk. Counseling and other positive student supports provide a more productive response to misbehavior.
The Every Student Succeeds Act and persistently dangerous schools
Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, a school may be labeled as “persistently dangerous” if it meets certain criteria established by each state. If a school is designated as persistently dangerous, the district must inform the school community. Parents may then ask for a transfer to another school.
Few schools are identified as persistently dangerous each year. Of New York’s 4,468 public schools, only two were classified as persistently dangerous for the 2017-18 school year. That number has dropped substantially in recent years, down from 47 schools in 2014-15.
What parents can do to improve school safety
Parents can powerfully impact the safety of their children’s schools by being advocates for school safety and ensuring that they and their children contribute to the wellness of the school community.
“Parents should advocate that their schools do a better job of helping troubled youth, stopping bullying and harassment, and using threat assessment to evaluate students who threaten violence,” Cornell says. Parents and their children can have a direct role in preventing school violence by reporting troubling behavior when they see it, he says. “Parents should explain to their kids that there is a difference between snitching and seeking help to prevent violence and that threats of violence should be reported. Schools must build a community of support and trust in their school, so that they can identify and help troubled individuals before their difficulties take them down a path toward violence.”
Components of safe schools
According to the U.S. Department of Education report Safeguarding Our Children: An Action Guide, a safe school will have three major components:
- A school-wide foundation for the well-being and success of all students.
- A system for identifying students with acute behavior problems.
- A system for providing interventions and therapies for at-risk students.
Early warning signs
Below are some of the warning signs that a student may pose a threat to the school. If you observe any of these indicators in a student, report your concerns to school staff. A potentially violent student usually exhibits more than one of the following behaviors:
- Difficulty eating or sleeping
- Abuse of animals
- Unusual attraction to violent entertainment
- Withdrawal from social interaction
- Feelings of rejection and/or persecution
- Unusually intense or frequent violent content in personal writings or artwork
- A pattern of bullying
- Intolerance or prejudice against certain groups of people
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Membership in a gang
- Threats of serious violence
Imminent warning signs
Imminent warning signs require immediate intervention and may include:
- Physical fighting with others
- Destruction of property
- Intense anger for minor reasons
- Detailed threats of violence
- Possession of weapons
- Threats of suicide
As with any concern about a student, it is important not to judge or oversimplify. Helping the child, and the entire school community, should be the paramount concern.