Facing the Dubious Paradigm of School Shooting Responses
Education Policy Brief #61 | By: Steve Piazza | March 7, 2023
Header photo taken from: Giffords Courage to Fight Gun Violence
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In response to a spate of shooting incidents in schools over the last several decades, state and local governments have attempted a number of ways to keep students safe.
At the federal level, The STOP School Violence Act (2018) has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in grants, and will provide funding to schools through 2028. Congress has also introduced several other violence prevention bills, like H.R.5428 (2021) and S.4968 (2022), but to date, none have seen much additional substantive action beyond introduction.
Meanwhile, more than 40 states have taken action and do require some sort of preparation for a violent threat. As a result, 95% of K-12 schools across the country currently have active shooter drills.
Since American public schools first came into existence almost 200 years ago, safety for students and teachers have been a concern and preventive practices have evolved. Tragic incidents like the fatal fires at the Lake View School in Collinwood, Ohio (1908) and Chicago’s Our Lady of the Angels School (1958) resulted not only in structural changes around school buildings but in fire drills that have been refined and become part of a school’s routine on the calendar.
During the 1950’s and 60’s as Cold War threats of nuclear attack were looming, students were subject to readiness sessions that had them climbing underneath desks and placing their heads between their knees. In time, these drills went out of fashion, but similar severe weather drills are still not uncommon, especially in many places that are prone to tornadoes.
And now, with the amount of gun violence that’s been plaguing schools for several decades, we find we have entered a new era defining safety in schools. In 1994, Congress passed the Gun Free Schools Act that required expulsion for public school students caught carrying a weapon in school, though many believed it didn’t go far enough.
Shooting after shooting continued and following each tragedy, renewed calls for solutions to prevent more violence emerged. These include passing stricter gun laws, arming teachers, increasing the number of police officers on campus, implementing red flag alert protocols to identify students or others in the community who may pose a potential threat, and so on. Yet without fail, debates about law and policy would immediately become highly politicized and the already deepening divide would result in continued inaction.
This began to change somewhat in 2018 when, following the shooting deaths of 17 at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Congress was able to pass the STOP Act, though only after making it part of an omnibus bill. Soon after, other steps outside Congress were taken.
Infographic taken from: Everytown Research (.org)
(click or tap to enlargen)
The Homeland Security Department now has resources in place that pertain to school and workplace violence, resources that include threat assessments and mitigations. Some colleges, like St. Mary’s College of Maryland, promote certain protocols, like Run Hide, Fight, if an active shooter is present. Washington state’s Department of Education has published a guide for emergencies.
As active shooter drills have become ubiquitous, many feel that using certain extreme drills takes its toll on who they’re attempting to protect: students. Controversial programs like Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate (ALICE) that use realistic role playing have caused authorities to be concerned about the harm they actually cause to students.
Opposition to such drills has been supported by research. For example, the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund (Everytown) collaborated on a report with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA).
The report concluded that there’s no evidence active shooter drills are effective in preventing incidents or assuring safety. However, it did reveal significant increases in emotional issues, such as depression, stress, and anxiety, as well as physiological health problems for many.
Politicians have taken notice of these dangers. In 2020, Washington Democratic Governor Jay Inslee signed a law requiring that any preventive measures cannot cause developmental or emotional harm. In June 2021, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas approved SB 168, which calls for amongst other things, the “creation of a safe zone around the exercise area to exclude weapons, subject to certain exceptions.”
The law also includes notification of parents and requires the use of drills deemed age and developmentally appropriate. Even the 2018 Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety, is now, despite its title, under revision by the Biden Administration.
Regardless of what’s been done so far, there’s still a long way to go. We can no longer ignore that implementing effectual and tenacious violence prevention measures beyond controversial drills is the imperative. For the time being, though, contentious preparation activities remain a grim reality in almost all the nations’ schools. Too bad that students’ vulnerability to violence does as well.
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The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has developed a checklist that is sympathetic to the emotional and psychological needs of students during active shooter drills: https://www.nctsn.org/resources/creating-school-active-shooter-intruder-drills
Organizations like The Sandy Hook Promise Fund offers resources on school safety as well as additional information on how schools can apply for the STOP grant: https://actionfund.sandyhookpromise.org/
For another example of research on the effects of active shooter drills, this one published by the Criminal Justice Policy Review, click the following: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0887403419900316