School Shootings: Revisited

Fallout SHelter SymbolIt’s just over a year since the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. With the killing of over twenty young children and teachers, it seemed that, at last, America collectively shouted “Enough!”

But in the that year has passed very little has changed except to increase physical security at schools, institute regularized lock-down drills for students and teachers, and pass legislation requiring schools to have such procedures in place. It would seem that the only things we can all agree on are security protocols. Getting to the heart of the problem? The grown-ups are at a loss.

Just this past week another school shooting received nationwide attention: a 12-year-old walked into the gym of his school in Roswell, Arizona with a sawed off shotgun (which he had secured at home) and seriously injured two classmates before being disarmed by a teacher. In the aftermath, a great deal of coverage focused on whether teachers are or should be ready to make such interventions and the ways that lockdown drills have become part-and-parcel of school life. An article in the January 17 New York Times headlined, “In Age of School Shootings, Lockdown Is the New Duck-and-Cover.” And a Tweet from Education Week read, “Acts of heroism in shooting incidents spark concerns about adequacy of crisis training for teachers.” Sadly, very few articles talked about why children in our country continue to gain access to and then bring those weapons to school to do harm.

Is this really the best we can do? Normalize the possibility of a school shooting and ask teachers to take on one more responsibility, one that could lead to their injury or death?

Violence can never be eliminated. Tragedy will strike, including the horror of violence in school, and schools must be prepared. But we are coming dangerously close to accepting school shootings as part of life.

According to studies cited by National Association of School Psychologists, thus far all school shootings were planned in advance. Most youth had told peers before committing the acts, most reported having a history of feeling bullied or threatened, shooters often had a history of mental health problems, and many had made suicidal gestures before the incidents (Fein et al., 2002; Kleck, 2009; Redding & Shelf, 2001).

The tragedy is that we already know quite a bit about what might work: creating school cultures in which every student is known and cared about, insuring strong adult-child relationships, providing adequate counseling and mental health support services in schools, finding ways to make students comfortable letting adults know when a friend is in distress, and wrestling with a deep-seated American tradition of gun ownership and all that comes with it.

Until we address these very human issues, we may be stuck with lock-down-drills and the injury or deaths of students and teachers. Until we give as much attention to each child’s emotional well-being as we do on test scores, we may be stuck with lock-down-drills and the injury or deaths of students and teachers. Until those on all asides of the gun debate come together rather than shout over one another, we may be stuck with lock-down-drills and the injury or deaths of students and teachers.

Schools no longer practice ‘duck-and-cover.’ The thought of nuclear annihilation became so terrifying and outrageous that eventually the adults started to talk, made some compromises, and took action so that children did not have to hide under desks or fear death by radiation. Do we have the will to make lockdown drills a thing of the past? Only the grown-ups can answer this question.