It’s every parent and teacher’s nightmare: a shooting at school. When we see images and read reports on gun violence at schools like Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary, one of the first questions we ask is: how could we have prevented this?
The reality is, we CAN prevent school shootings.
We’re going to take a look at when and why school shootings happen, and then what we, as regular Americans, can do to prevent them from happening in our schools.
How Much Have School Shootings Increased?
At the beginning of 2019, CNN took a look at how many school shootings occurred in America over the previous ten years. From 2009 to 2018, there were 180 school shootings; 356 students, teachers, and administrators fell victim to gun violence. The statistics are sobering, but the fact that school shootings are increasing is even more terrifying. In 2009, there were 12. In 2018, there were 28.
Mapping these events reveals that most school shootings happen on Fridays, in the afternoon. They happen all over the country, in all types of schools: elementary, middle schools, high schools, private schools, public schools, universities. As we look at these lists, the names of victims, the schools and communities devastated, we have to ask: why? Why are they increasing?
Why Does Gun Violence Occur in Schools?
While it’s difficult, nearly impossible really, to pinpoint why gun violence in schools is increasing, law enforcement experts believe they know the primary reason: diminished coping skills.
“We have kids who are so isolated inside,” Mike Clumpner, a police officer who specializes in active shooter training says, “they don’t learn those problem-solving skills.” Isolation happens in many ways: they’re glued to technology or perhaps their parents and caregivers are the ones sucked into a screen. They don’t learn coping and conflict resolution skills, so when they get angry, they lash out in violent ways.
Depression is one the largest contributing factors, Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist explains. Depression is often the first symptom of isolation. Most, but not all, shooters suffered from depression and/or paranoia, particularly those who were adolescents. While we can’t blame mental health issues for school shootings, they are a risk factor.
These mental health issues for our students often occur because of childhood trauma, but also marginalization. The U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education found that nearly 75 percent of school shooters were bullied or harassed at school. In other words, the isolation of our students doesn’t just come from video games and technology, it also comes from their peers.
Alfred University conducted a survey of American students on school shootings. The top reason they gave for a school shooting: “They want to get back at those who have hurt them.” Eighty-seven percent of students cited this as the reason.
Another factor: access to firearms. The U.S. Secret Service conducted two significant studies that showed more than 73 percent of the firearms school shooters acquired were from the home of a parent or a close relative.
In 2017, 16 percent of students in grades 9-12 said they had “carried a weapon at least one day during the previous 30 days” and 4 percent said they had brought them on to school property. Our students having access to firearms does increase the chance of them being brought to school.
But it’s more than just access — it’s the combination of struggling with isolation or mental health and the access to guns. Those struggling with suicidal thoughts or fantasies about “getting back” at their abusers with access to guns may turn these fantasies into reality.
What are the Warning Signs for School Attackers?
So what are the warning signs of an attacker? As educators, parents, or community members, what should we watch for?
Between 2000 and 2013, the FBI studied pre-attack behaviors of active shooters in schools. Their findings are detailed and extensive, but here’s a quick list of things to watch for, based on what they found:
- 55% of school shooters had made threats or had a confrontation with their target. This could mean a teacher or their peers.
- 62% of school shooters struggled with mental health issues. While it is often impossible to determine whether or not someone is dealing with mental illness, it is still something to be aware of.
- 90% of school shooters showed signs of suicidal ideation and 23% attempted suicide before a shooting.
- 88% of active shooters under the age of 17 communicated an intent to commit violence, either verbally or on social media.
In summary: keep an eye on students who are struggling with mental illness and/or communicate violent tendencies in any way.
How School Shootings Affect Survivors
Beyond the physical danger of a school shooting, many parents and educators are deeply concerned with the psychological effects on their students and faculty. Sanford University researchers call it the “silent cost” and it’s taking a major toll on our children.
Researchers saw a huge spike in the use of antidepressants in youth in the communities where shootings took place, rising 21 percent even years after the incident. As Maya Rossin-Slater, a faculty and researcher at Stanford, said: “There are real consequences on an important marker of mental health.”
Some teachers also noted that kids who usually maintained a high GPA started to struggle in class. Parents reported nightmares and trouble sleeping, and teachers reported attendance and tardiness issues.
All of these make sense: they’re going back to the scene of trauma. For students who have never experienced a school shooting, fear is present, too. But, luckily that fear seems to be decreasing.
As parents, we want to empower our students to not only thrive at school but to also take action if they think something is wrong.
Are Students Willing to Report a Threat?
In the FBI study mentioned previously, they found that most of the people who noticed concerning behaviors were schoolmates. And by most, we mean 92%. But if their peers notice these red flags, will they report it?
In their study on lethal school violence, Alfred University found that only about half of students would tell an adult if they heard someone talking about shooting another student at school. While this seems like a low percentage, even more concerning is that a quarter of these students said that “teachers need to care more about their students” and 13% said that “nothing can be done to stop school shootings.”
How can we encourage our students to report threats? Based on Alfred University’s findings, it looks like telling an adult isn’t necessarily the best way. Providing a no-contact method of reporting could be a solution — something safety app SaferWatch can do. Further, SaferWatch allows users to report an incident anonymously, which alleviates some of the hesitation a student may feel.
Another solution? Take reports seriously. Show our students that when they do report a possible threat that we believe them and we’re going to do something about it.
What We Can Do About Gun Violence in Schools
It’s easy to feel powerless. It’s easy to look at a school shooting and think: I can’t do anything to stop this.
But the reality is, WE CAN.
Not sure where to start? Here are five things you can do to help prevent school shootings in your community:
- Advocate and push for more counseling at schools. On average, there are around 450 students assigned to each school counselor. Having better access to counselors can greatly reduce the risk of gun violence among our students.
- Encourage help for and normalize mental health issues. Incredibly, simply acknowledging that we’re struggling encourages others to reach out for help. Talk about it at home. Model good self-care for your kids and encourage them to ask for help when they’re feeling low.
- If you have a gun in your home, make sure it is inaccessible. Store your firearms safely. Keep them out of reach of children and locked away from adolescents. Remember: more than 70 percent of school shooters got their firearms from relatives.
- Vote for reasonable gun control laws. In states that require background checks on gun sales, there are 35 percent fewer gun deaths per capita.
- Create a way for students, faculty, and staff to report potential threats. Whether it’s an app like SaferWatch or a place to write anonymous tips in the counseling office, having a place to report potential threats not only helps prevent gun violence, it also helps our students feel safer.
We can do this. Together, we can prevent gun violence in our schools. With some effort and some education, we can create a brighter, safer future for our students.