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Getting past the brainstorming phase of ending school violence

Policymakers looking to stop school shootings have countless options, but research suggests that lots of the ideas on the table are ineffective and even harmful. Here’s what works and what doesn’t.

(CN) — The recent massacre in Uvalde, Texas, like any school shooting before it, left the American public horror struck and grasping at ways to change. President Biden mentioned a few such proposals last week in a televised address. Billions of dollars are already being committed to prevent the next slaughter or reduce the body count. And while some of these plans even have a proven track record, the research suggests that a lot of what’s now being done is unproductive.

Active shooter drills. Back in 2020, the second largest teacher's labor union in America passed a resolution stating that it would oppose a policy of subjecting students to simulated trauma. “There is no evidence to support the idea that active shooter drills will save lives,” the American Federation of Teachers said in a statement at the time.

Because while there’s little to no hard evidence that these drills have any effect, there is evidence that the drills harm students’ mental health. One recent study analyzed 54 million social media posts and found that the drills increased students’ level of anxiety, depression and other psychological symptoms by about 40%.

Even Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by family members of school-shooting victims, has started a petition to limit such drills.

“There hasn’t been a strong body of evidence that these drills are helping,” Megan Carolan, vice president of research at the Institute for Child Success in Greenville, South Carolina, told The New York Times last year.

As of 2016, 92% of American schools had a detailed plan for responding to shootings and 95% had drilled students on how to respond, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Today, active shooter drills are required by law in 40 states — all except Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Massachusetts, Nebraska, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Ken Trump, president of the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services, said there is some sense behind training students to follow lockdown procedures. But training them to attack the shooter is “absurd,” he told Courthouse News, and teaching them to run is a bad idea because it “creates a target-rich environment” and interferes with police who are trying to locate the culprit.

Four years ago, during the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the shooter was able to evade police precisely by blending in with fleeing students.

Police officers in schools. Almost half of all public schools now have a police officer on campus, often known as a school resource officer or SRO. The federal government alone has spent more than $1 billion to subsidize more than 46,000 such officers, according to the ACLU. More than 90% are armed.

“There have been numerous documented instances of SROs directly intervening to prevent or quickly mitigate active school shootings,” according to a 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Justice.

One year later, however, a Brown University study concluded that SROs “do not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents" and tend to increase arrests and police referrals with a disproportionate effect on minorities.

JAMA meanwhile concluded, in a study of 39 years of school gun incidents, that “armed guards were not associated with significant reduction in rates of injuries” and that, after controlling for other factors, “the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present.”

“There is no scientific evidence that having armed personnel on campus will prevent or stop a shooting,” said Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia who studies school safety.

The effectiveness of police officers was recently called into question by reports that police officers were on the scene in Uvalde for over an hour before engaging the shooter. An armed SRO had also been present during the Parkland shooting but didn’t intervene.

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Trump from National School Safety and Security Services believes SROs can be helpful “if they’re properly trained and if you get the right people, but a lot of schools don’t follow the best practices.”

Sgt. Andres Vega, a Corpus Christi Independent School District police officer from Moody High School, prepares to enter a classroom room with a mock shooter inside during an active shooter training exercise Aug. 19, 2014, at Lamar Elementary in Corpus Christi, Texas. (Michael Zamora/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP, File)

Arming teachers. In an Economist poll conducted in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, a full 51% of Americans said teachers should be allowed to carry guns. And last week Ohio lawmakers held their second hearing on a bill that would allow teachers to pack heat after only two hours of hands-on training, down from the current requirement of 700 hours.

But if the evidence in favor of trained police officers is highly disputed, the evidence for arming teachers is even more scarce.

“Asking teachers to carry firearms to protect students is unreasonable and unrealistic,” said Cornell, the education professor, in an interview with Courthouse News. “It’s very difficult to do. This is not a TV show; this is reality.”

Trump noted another problem, which is that when police officers arrive during an active shooter situation they might mistake an armed teacher for the shooter. “How do you tell the good guy from the bad guy?”

Some school districts have proposed letting teachers use weapons but keeping them in a locked safe — a provision that Trump speculated would almost certainly make them useless in an emergency.

The idea behind arming police and teachers is to make it easier to stop a shooter once an incident starts. But even if that might work in theory, it’s unlikely to serve as a deterrent, according to Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology at Hamline University.

“These are suicides, in addition to homicides,” she explained in a chat with Politico last week. “Mass shooters design these to be their final acts. When you realize this, it completely flips the idea that someone with a gun on the scene is going to deter this. If anything, that’s an incentive for these individuals. They are going in to be killed.”

Hardening the target. Many schools now have barricades, metal detectors and other features designed to prevent outside intruders.

But “hardening doesn’t work,” Peterson said, because “over 90% of the time, school shooters target their own school,” said Peterson, the criminology professor. “These are insiders, not outsiders,” and it’s not suspicious when they arrive at school. 

An analysis published in School Psychology Review concluded that, “based on the available evidence, singular approaches like target hardening or utilizing SROs will not reduce risk for school shootings and may lead to other deleterious effects.”

Cornell has also spoken bleakly about the efficacy of these features. “We are committing billions of dollars to excessive building security measures,” he said, when “research on target hardening shows that it doesn’t make schools safer nor does it make the occupants feel safer.”

And the security consultant Trump underscored that security hardware is “only as good as the weakest human link behind it." He called much of the hardware “security theater” and noted that even the Transportation Security Administration, which works full-time on security equipment, has a high failure rate in tests.

There's also the consideration that a school might have metal detectors during the day but fail to use them for after-school events such as athletics, plays and community events, Trump continued. A student could easily walk in and hide weapons and then retrieve them the next day.

Students at William Hackett Middle School pass through metal detectors on the first day of school on Sept. 6, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

Gun control. President Biden recently endorsed increased background checks, outlawing assault weapons or raising the legal age to buy one and banning high-capacity magazines.

Currently, gun dealers must perform background checks but private individuals don’t have to. It’s illegal for individual gun owners to knowingly sell a gun to a felon or other prohibited person but they’re not obligated to inquire.

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Expanding background checks might help, but today's background-check regime isn’t particularly focused on the kinds of people who commit school shootings. Prohibited persons include felons, illegal immigrants, stalkers, fugitives, and people who have been hospitalized for addiction or mental illness or convicted of domestic violence. School shooters are often troubled young people who finally snap but who don’t have a lengthy rap sheet.

As opposed to stopping mass shootings, background checks might help with everyday criminal activity around schools. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that while it’s common for mass shooters to obtain guns legally, 90% of routine gun crimes involve a gun that was obtained in violation of the law.

Background checks also work better in theory than in practice. One study found that expanding background checks in Colorado and Washington had no real effect because citizens didn’t comply and the laws were hard to enforce.

Assault weapons were banned in the U.S. from 1994 to 2004. A 2020 RAND review found that there was “inconclusive evidence for the effect of assault-weapon bans on mass shootings.” Another study published that year concluded that assault-weapon bans “do not seem to be associated with the incidence of fatal mass shootings,” and a study from 2019 found that the federal ban had very little effect.

It’s worth noting that the 1999 massacre in Columbine, Colorado, occurred during the federal assault weapon ban; one of the shooters was still able to obtain a semi-automatic weapon.

Raising the minimum age for purchasing a gun from 18 to 21 has been shown to reduce the number of suicides in that age group, according to Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. But there’s no evidence that raising the minimum age has any effect on homicides, he told Courthouse News.

On the other hand, limits on high-capacity magazines do seem to reduce the number of people who are hurt or killed.

“It’s clear that there is an association between weapon features, most notably ammunition capacity, and how many people are shot in these incidents,” a 2020 study concludes.

Another study focused specifically on high-capacity magazines found that “magazine restrictions can potentially reduce mass shooting deaths by 11% to 15% and total victims shot in these incidents by one quarter.”

Currently, seven states limit the maximum number of rounds that can be shot before reloading to 10 or 15, and those states are associated with a 63% lower rate of mass shootings, according to one analysis. (The states are California, Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York; Hawaii also has a limit for certain types of guns.)

Another approach that has been shown to work is gun licensing, which often requires longer waiting periods and forces purchasers to interact directly with law enforcement personnel for a photo ID or fingerprints or to participate in safety training. Licensing requirements make gun buying less impulsive and are also linked to lower rates of straw purchases and diversion to the illegal market, Webster said.

After Maryland adopted gun licensing in 2013, Webster conducted an anonymous survey of 200 people on parole or probation in Baltimore, and 40% of them said the law had made it harder to obtain a gun.

There’s also ample evidence that laws that require people to keep guns locked up at home reduce the number of teenage suicides and homicides, Webster said, although no studies have specifically considered the effect on school shootings.

As a political matter, 52% Americans want stricter gun laws, according to Gallup, but that’s down from 78% in 1990, while 11% want looser restrictions. Gallup also found that 31% of Americans personally own a gun and 44% have one in their household.

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Support for a ban on handguns is at 19%, an all-time low — and down from a surprising 60% back in 1959.

Of course, guns are only one type of weapon. Although they’re easier to use than bombs, the Boston Marathon massacre showed that relatively unsophisticated young people can use homemade bombs to devastating effect. In fact the Columbine killers had constructed pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails and explosives made from converted propane cylinders, and launched their shooting rampage only after the bombs didn’t go off as planned.

And the worst school massacre in U.S. history, in which 44 people died in Bath, Michigan, in 1927, involved bombs and no guns.

Demonstrators hold a banner to protest the visit of President Donald Trump to the border city after the Aug. 3 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton, File)

Red-flag laws. These laws — also endorsed by President Biden — are designed to remove guns from people who are believed to pose a threat, usually of suicide but also of mass shootings. Such laws currently exist in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The specifics vary, but a gun-removal order can be issued by a court and can typically be applied for by police, family members, and in some cases by doctors, teachers and school administrators.

Use of the laws varies considerably by state. Red-flag laws resulted in gun removals in about 5,000 cases in 2020, although nearly half the removals occurred in Florida alone.

Red-flag laws have bipartisan support in Congress, and legislation to encourage them at the state level has been backed by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham. A 2019 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 86% of the public supported such laws, and they have been upheld against Second Amendment challenges by appeals courts in ConnecticutFlorida and Indiana.

Although the laws are used mostly to prevent suicide, a study in Annals of Internal Medicine looked at 21 cases where they were used in an effort to avert a mass shooting, and found that “none of the threatened shootings had occurred.” The authors noted that it’s impossible to know for sure if a massacre would have occurred otherwise, but “the cases suggest that this urgent, individualized intervention can play a role in efforts to prevent mass shootings.”

About half of all mass shooters communicate their plans ahead of time, but among school shooters the figure is 80%, suggesting that red-flag laws could be especially effective, said James Densley, author of the book "The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic."

Densley told Courthouse News that red-flag laws could potentially have prevented the school shootings in Columbine, Parkland and Uvalde, as well as at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the high schools in Red Lake, Minnesota; Marysville, Washington; and Oxford, Michigan.

Nevertheless, the laws raise civil liberties concerns. In Rhode Island, the ACLU opposed a red-flag law in 2018 on due process grounds until the Legislature tightened the standards, granted a right to counsel, limited who could file a petition and added a penalty for filing a petition in bad faith to get revenge on someone.

Threat assessment. For school officials to utilize a red-flag law, or simply to respond effectively to a potential for violence, they first have to know what they’re looking for. Recently the Secret Service analyzed 67 averted school-attack plans and came up with recommendations for schools to use to assess potential threats.

Perhaps not surprisingly, “red flags” included students who had adverse experiences in their home, were bullied, or had a history of school discipline, mental illness or substance use.

The report found that the most common motivation was a specific grievance with classmates and — relatedly — the best source of information about potential problems was other students, suggesting that finding ways to open lines of communication for students to report their concerns to faculty and administrators is crucial.

Simply expelling students or otherwise removing them from the school without a mental-health intervention is not an effective response, the report said, because they may simply return with a weapon.

Researchers at the University of Virginia came up with threat-assessment guidelines back in 2004 designed to allow schools to respond effectively to threats of violence. According to a 2015 analysis in the Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, “use of a threat-assessment approach to violence prevention is associated with lower levels of student aggression and a more positive school climate.”

A demonstrator stands in front of a large "Come and Take It" banner at a rally in support of open-carry gun laws at the Texas State Capitol in Austin in 2015. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

The scale of the problem. In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, some 57% of parents say they’re worried about gun violence in schools, including 29% who say they worry about it “a lot,” according to a CBS News poll. Teens share this fear. A Pew Research poll after the Parkland shooting showed that an identical 57% of teenagers were worried that a shooting that could happen at their school, including 25% who said they were very worried about it.

database called the Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as any incident where four or more people are wounded or killed by gunfire, not counting the shooter. By this measure there have been more than 230 mass shootings just since the beginning of 2022.

But the vast majority of these incidents don’t fit most people’s image of a rampaging psychopath randomly killing strangers; rather they’re routine criminal matters involving drug deals gone wrong, gang rivalries or domestic violence.

If you exclude those categories and look at incidents where four or more people died, then there have been a total of 172 mass shootings in the U.S. between early 1966 and early 2020, according to The Violence Project, another comprehensive database. That includes just 11 school shootings in that 55-year period, during which fewer than 100 students died.

While each death is a tragedy, that 55-year total is roughly half the number of students who die each year from suicide in California alone and only about a tenth of the number of adolescents who die every single year from drug overdoses.

Still, school shootings have a much greater effect than these mere numbers indicate. They undermine the fabric of society by making learning environments feel unsafe and targeting the most vulnerable possible victims. Suicides and drug overdoses are personal tragedies, but school shootings threaten the civil order in a unique way and demand a thoughtful and effective public response — ideally one that’s based on sound research.

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