Preventing School Shootings: Policies That Work and Lack of Political Will That Doesn’t

By Jan Hillard
NKyTribune Data Editor

The recent tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Texas is a grim reminder of more than 20 years of school shootings across the United States.

In the 6 years from 2013 to 2019, there were 549 school shootings resulting in 129 deaths and 270 injuries, including 208 children. This year alone, there have been 27 school shootings. Each year, more than 3,000 children are shot dead. By any measure, this is the reality that we have come to accept in the absence of an effective gun control policy.

Ironically, there is no political topic more studied than gun control policy. Research shows what works and what doesn’t. Yet, despite these reports, our political leaders either say they don’t know what to do or offer ineffective and, in some cases, dangerous solutions.

This article documents the scale of the school shooting disaster in the United States, the strategies that can significantly reduce their frequency, and the ideas that have no evidence of success or pose greater danger. Both sets of policies crop up after every school shooting. And the lack of political will dominates the day.

Every day, schools across the country face gun violence. And while most often this violence is not classified as a mass shooting, where a shooter kills 4 or more people, this gun violence results in trauma, suffering and death for both students and teachers.

School shootings include homicides, non-fatal assaults, unintentional gunshot wounds, self-harm and suicide, parking lot altercations, and gang violence. The frequency of these incidents not only compromises student safety, but also impacts student learning and mental health.

The prevalence of gun violence experienced by our children is staggering. The FBI documents the following statistics: Gun violence is the leading cause of death for children under 18, and 4 million children live in a home with at least one unlocked and loaded gun. Since the Columbine shootings, 220,000 K-12 children have been victims of school shootings, while each year 4 million students are confined to school. Over time, the federal and 42 state governments have taken steps to limit gun violence in schools and on school grounds (The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1994). Laws defining schools as gun-free zones have reduced gun violence in schools, particularly student suicides and assisted homicides. Unwittingly, however, the gun lobby sought to overturn these gun-free zone laws.

In a grim recognition and acceptance that guns cannot be kept out of schools, children in 40 states are required to participate in active shooting drills. These drills, along with the “hardening off” of school buildings and grounds, are the most common proactive measures schools take to prevent gun violence. Unsurprisingly, for-profit companies are the beneficiaries of these measures: they typically provide the drills representing a $3 billion security industry that lacks evidence-based results.

Still, there is research-based evidence on active fire drills. The non-profit association, Search each city, studied in depth the evidence of years of school exercises. Their article, “The Impact of Active Firing Exercises, 2021”, identifies mixed results associated with these exercises.

To some extent, drills improve student compliance with emergency drills; however, students generally have difficulty keeping quiet, staying out of sight, and using their cell phones. Additionally, the exercises can lead to deeper, long-term issues. These include students who experience significant anxiety and fear immediately after exercise, an obsession with bad guys they believe are lurking around the school, and suspicion of other students. These beliefs are exaggerated and proliferated via social media, including posts referencing murder and bloodshed.

In addition to Everytown’s research, Georgia Tech Institute of Technology Social Dynamics and Wellness conducted an extensive study on immediate and long-term effects of exercises on students. They find that active fire drills are associated with increased student depression, stress and anxiety, as well as psychological problems. These symptoms appear in children from the age of 5 years. The results also indicate that active fire drills have an impact on the mental health of teachers and parents. These consequences of active fire exercises raise the question of the effectiveness and necessity of the exercises given their limited impact on the recent school massacres. Although the exercises have some preventive value, they do not address the root causes of school shootings.

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Along with active fire drills, some are calling for teachers to be armed. While at first glance this may seem like a deterrent (e.g., arresting a bad guy with a gun with a good guy with a gun), Associated Press research indicates serious consequences with arming the teachers. These include lack of initial and ongoing training and accidental shootings. Accidental shootings present the greatest concern: Trained police officers across the country are associated with more than 150 accidental shootings a year, some resulting in death. These events occur when well-trained agents are brimming with adrenaline, startled, or under-equipped. According to National Education Associationover 80% of all teachers reject the idea of ​​being armed, citing danger to students, accidental discharge, and limited effectiveness against well-armed shooters.

Everytown Research offers three evidence-based conclusions related to teacher weaponization. First, students will have access to teachers’ weapons. The students discuss among themselves the weapons of the teachers and know where the weapons are kept. Teacher weapons can be easily misplaced or stolen or taken away by students. Second, the risk of shooting triples with access to firearms. This includes accidental discharges and intentional shootings by actors such as disgruntled employees. Third, arming teachers introduces enormous liability risks. Schools that offer to arm teachers are routinely denied liability coverage or compensation. Additionally, teachers may be subject to criminal prosecution for accidentally discharging their firearm. Currently, only two states allow the arming of teachers. Other states and many other schools are considering this ineffective and dangerous solution.

Some groups, like the National Rifle Association and their elected affiliates, promote the idea that school shootings cannot be stopped. However, if you think school shootings shouldn’t be normal, there are evidence-based solutions that represent a holistic approach to school gun violence. The Giffords Center clearly listed three solutions and the research behind them in their report, “The Truth About School Shootings, 2019.”

The Center highlights child access prevention laws, extreme risk protection orders and raising the minimum age for gun ownership to 21 (from 2008 to 2018, the 18 at age 20 accounted for 36% of all active shooter incidents in schools) as the most effective policies designed to address the root cause of gun violence in schools.

The Giffords Center highlights 5 myths that must be dispelled if we are to have an impact on the frequency and carnage of school shootings. These include:

Myth 1. School shootings are just a fact of life.
Myth 2. Nothing can be done to prevent school shootings.
Myth 3. Schools must arm teachers.
Myth 4. School shootings are largely caused by the mentally ill.
Myth 5. Children are most likely to be victims of gun violence at school.

After the recent Uvalde Massacre in Texas, many Republican elected leaders, such as Senators Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell, were surprisingly quick to state one or more of these myths. They have practiced these lines many times before. Doing so affirms their allegiance to the gun lobby and ensures continued funding from it.

This inaction by these senators and others to take serious action cannot continue.

Our children deserve better than this story, the one that puts schoolchildren in danger every day.

Dr. Jan Hillard is data editor of the Northern Kentucky Tribune and retired professor emeritus of Northern Kentucky University.

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