By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
The horrific events at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, reminds us of the dangers that exist for our children within our schools. School shootings are especially horrendous because of the inability of students and school staff to defend themselves against an active shooter. They are a soft target, and it is critically important to take more steps to prevent these incidents from occurring.
School Shootings Are Not a New Problem
Unfortunately, school shootings are not a new problem. There have been 119 school shootings since 2018 and 27 school shootings thus far in 2022.
The Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security notes that there have been 2,062 school shootings since 1970. The Sandy Hook Promise Website observes that guns are the leading cause of death among American children and teens, and it is estimated that 4.6 million American children reside in a residence where a firearm is kept loaded and an in unlocked location.
According to the Sandy Hook Promise website, four out of five school shootings occurred with someone being aware of the attacker’s plan without reporting it. According to the Secret Service and the Department of Education, 93% of active shooters planned out their school shootings in advance.
How We Can Detect School Shooters in Advance
These alarming statistics shed light on ways to mitigate the risk of these shootings. For instance, criminal penalties should exist for someone who knows of a school shooting in advance and fails to report it. This criminal penalty should be publicized and accompanied by an emphasis of the importance of reporting threats of school shootings, even if a witness does not believe that the person making the threats will carry them out.
Parents also have the responsibility to monitor their children for indicators that they could be a threat to other people and immediately seek help when these indicators of potential violence are observed in an individual. In the Oxford High School shooting in Michigan in November 2021, there were clear warning signs that shooter Ethan Crumbley was a threat to his classmates and teachers.
According to The Hill, a teacher at Crumbley’s school found a drawing on the morning of the shooting that had a firearm pointing at the words “the thoughts won’t stop, help me,” and there was a person in the drawing being shot twice. The school then contacted his parents and told them that their son needed to attend counseling within 48 hours. Unfortunately, Crumbley killed four students and injured seven two hours after the parent conference.
In the Crumbley school shooting, the parents were charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to NPR. Ethan clearly demonstrated concerning behavior prior to the shooting; he had texted his mother about seeing demons, filmed of himself torturing animals, and displayed an obsession with guns and Nazi propaganda.
NPR also noted that on the day of the shooting, the parents refused to take Ethan home from school and failed to inform the school that they had recently purchased a firearm for their son. This gun was not secured, despite the fact that Ethan was making Molotov cocktails at home and searching school shootings and guns on his phone.
Prompt Reporting Is a Lifesaver in School Shootings
Whether a potential shooter is a family member, classmate or friend, prompt action must be taken to report any unusual behavior that someone may be a threat to themselves or others. Often, social media provides warning signs that someone may be contemplating a school shooting.
When there are indicators that someone may be a threat to a school, law enforcement and the school should be immediately notified. Law enforcement must take a lead role in taking these 911 calls seriously and should fully investigating whether the threat is credible. Whether credible or not, all threats of violence to schools should be thoroughly documented and the potential shooter should be referred to a mental health counselor prior to being permitted on a school campus.
The Multi-Faceted Approach to Preventing a School Shooting
Ultimately, a multi-faceted approach is needed to prevent school shootings. One important step is reporting any suspicious behavior or threatening statements. Another essential step is securing firearms in a locked cabinet at a home to prevent a violent or mentally ill person from accessing the firearm.
Schools also have an important responsibility in limiting access to school buildings. There have been a number of school shootings where the perpetuator was no longer a student but gained access to the building, such as in the Margery Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
Access control should include one entrance in and out of the school. All other exit points should be locked from the outside, classroom doors should remain locked while classes are in session and schools should have a school resource officer on campus.
Bullying is clearly a factor that leads to school shootings. According to the Secret Service and Department of Education, nearly 75% of school shooters were bullied or harassed while at school.
In a study by Alfred University, the number one reason for school shootings was that the perpetuator wished to get back at those people who hurt him or her. Teachers and school administrators have a vitally important role in creating a climate where bullying is not tolerated.
Isolation, depression, mental health problems, a lack of problem-solving skills and a propensity toward violence are all risk factors that result in school violence. Everyone who interacts with a potentially violent student should watch for these warning signs.
School shootings are a parent’s worst nightmare. As a society, we need to do everything we can to prevent these horrible situations.
We also need to hire more counselors to serve schools and mitigate the risk of school shootings. On average, there are about 424 students assigned to each counselor, so more counselors in schools are needed.
In addition, technology can be used to report threats to schools in real time. One app that is currently used in over 400 schools in Florida is SaferWatch, which immediately notifies 911 call centers with GPS coordinates, access to security camera feeds, and two-way communications with the police during an emergency. Another useful app is FortifyFL, a tipline for reporting suspicious activities and that instantly relays information to schools and law enforcement.