School Shootings Are at a Record High This Year – but They Can Be Prevented

There were 55 school shootings in September 2021, up from 24 in September 2020 and 14 in September 2019. But the school carnage began well before the 2021 school year got underway for most students, as evidenced in the Aug. 13 fatal shooting of 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove at Washington Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

These trends are part of an overall rise in shootings and murders in 2020 and 2021, tied in part to record gun sales. More guns in more hands increases the likelihood that a firearm will find its way into a school.

Local Responses
Schools are struggling to respond to the overwhelming number of shootings and shooting threats. There have been a staggering 30 shootings just at high school football games so far this year.

A “State of Emergency” meeting was held after nine teens were shot in two separate shootings in Aurora, Colorado, in November 2021. Public schools in the area are prohibiting students from leaving for lunch in an effort to keep them safe.

One school in Phoenix, Arizona, banned backpacks and food deliveries after a student was shot in the bathroom on Nov. 29. The Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York State offered remote learning following two separate shooting incidents near its schools on Nov. 22. Schools across the country are increasing safety measures, canceling classes, even using police escorts for students coming onto campus.

These localized responses stand in stark contrast to the national legislative action taken in Finland, Germany and other countries when they experienced deadly school shootings.

Response in the U.K.
Twenty-five years ago, in March 1996, a gunman walked into Scotland’s Dunblane Primary School and opened fire, killing 16 children and a teacher. A successful campaign for gun regulation followed, laws were changed, handguns were banned and the United Kingdom hasn’t had a school shooting since.

Yet in America, active shooter drills to rehearse for a real shooting incident and armed guards to respond to them are the best children can hope for. There is a US$3 billion “homeroom security” industry, and some parents send their children to school wearing bulletproof backpacks.

Searching for Solutions
In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in November 2021, we searched public records on 170 mass shooters who killed four or more people from 1966 to 2019 for any communication of intent to do harm. That includes posting a threat on social media or telegraphing future violence to a loved one in person. We found that 79 mass shooters – nearly half of them – leaked their plans in advance. Communication was most common among school shooters and younger shooters. The fact it was most strongly associated with suicidal tendencies or attempts, as well as prior mental health counseling, suggests it may best be characterized as a cry for help.

Threats of violence circulated on campus before the Oxford High School shooting, with some students staying home out of an abundance of caution. There will be questions now about whether threats were disclosed to authorities and handled appropriately, in ways consistent with best practices on threat assessment or what we like to call “crisis response” systems. Our research is clear that all threats must be investigated and treated seriously as an opportunity for real intervention.

There are further implications from our research. If school shooters are nearly always students of the school, educators and others who work with them need training to identify a student in crisis and how to report something they see or hear indicative of violent intent.

Schools also need counselors, social workers and other resources so they can respond appropriately and holistically to students in crisis. This means not unduly punishing students with expulsion or criminal charges – things that could escalate the crisis or any grievance with the institution.

And for parents of school-age children, safe gun storage at home is paramount.

School shootings are not inevitable. They’re preventable. But practitioners and policymakers must act quickly because each school shooting feeds the cycle for the next one, causing harm far beyond that which is measured in lives lost. We believe the steps outlined above can help address that harm, promoting school security while safeguarding student well-being.

James Densley is Professor of Criminal Justice, Metropolitan State University. Jillian Peterson is Professor of Criminal Justice, Hamline University. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.