Jillian Peterson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Criminal Justice
Hamline University

James Densley, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Criminal Justice
Metropolitan State University

2019 marks the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the worst shooting at a high school in U.S. history, and the 20th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado—the worst high school shooting before Parkland. For this reason, the specter of school violence looms large.

What is a School Shooting?

There is a lot of confusion around the term “school shooting,” mostly because the phrase invokes an active shooter scenario. The US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection tallies school shootings based on a school’s answer to the following question: “For the regular school year, not including intersession or summer, was there at least one incident at the school that involved a shooting (regardless of whether anyone was hurt)?” However, this means that the case where a third-grader pushed the trigger on a Minnesota police officer’s holstered gun and it fired into the gymnasium floor gets lumped together with fatal shootings, even mass shootings, inflating the number of incidents.

Once you eliminate from the data suicides, shootings at after-hours events or times where no students or staff were present, accidental discharges that caused no injuries to anyone other than the person handling the gun, etc., you arrive at an average of 10 school shootings per year over the past 20 years—70 percent of which are targeted at a specific person. There are about 100,000 K-12 public schools in the United States, which means 1 in 10,000 schools experience a shooting in a given year, or .01%. While it may seem hard to believe, school shootings are not increasing in frequency. There were actually more school shootings in the 1990s. School shootings are rare, and schools are still the safest places for children to be.

In the last twenty years, there have been six school shootings that meet the FBI definition of a mass shooting in which four or more people were killed—Red Lake High School in 2005, West Nickel Mines School in 2006, Marysville Pilchuck High School in 2014, Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, and Santa Fe High School in 2018. Two of these shootings occurred last year, making 2018 the worst year on record for the number of people who were shot and killed at school. Our own analysis identified an additional 40 attempted mass shootings since Columbine (i.e., where the shooter came to school heavily armed and fired indiscriminately at numerous people). That’s 46 active shooters total in schools over 20 years, resulting in an average rate of 2.4 per year, which has been fairly consistent over the past two decades.

Mass School Shooters

For the past two years, we have been building a database of 160 mass shooters coded on over 50 pieces of life history information. Our work is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice. Our analysis of the 46 active shooters in schools found that all of them were male, and the majority were white. Over 90% were current or former students of the targeted school. 87% of school mass shooters were in a crisis prior to the shooting and 80% were also suicidal beforehand. The majority (78%) leaked their plans ahead of time, usually on social media. Because of their age, school shooters typically can’t purchase guns, so usually borrow or steal them from people they know— often their family members. School shooters use more guns that other forms of mass shooters. The schools where mass shootings occur are whiter and wealthier than the schools where other, much more common, forms of gun violence occur, such as shootings related to gangs.

Our Current Strategies

These data explain why our current strategies are not effectively preventing school mass shootings. If over 90% of mass school shooters are current or former students of the school, then there is a risk that physical security upgrades are locking potential perpetrators in, not keeping them out. Further, lock down drills may be training them in the school’s exact response so that they can learn how to circumnavigate it.

In Minnesota, students run through at least five lockdown drills per year—that’s 70 drills from pre-k through 12th grade. Research shows that school shootings are socially contagious and tend to occur in clusters for this reason. Most school shooters study past shootings before their own. Our research highlights a concern that schools are handing students a script for mass violence and then having them rehearse it five times per year, which can trigger a fascination in vulnerable students. Not to mention that research has found that these drills can be traumatic and increase anxiety among students and staff.

The majority of shooters threaten violence before they carry it out. Our current response to school threats is to punish students – through suspensions, expulsions, or criminal charges. Research has shown that suspensions and expulsions add stress and only increase one’s risk for violence. The Parkland shooter, for example, had been recently expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

New Strategies

We are in need of new and innovative approaches to violence prevention in schools. Our research indicates new avenues that may help schools prevent mass shootings, but also other forms of gun violence, including suicides committed with guns and everyday criminal homicides and nonfatal shootings:

  • Training all adults in the school – teachers, staff, and administrators – on suicide prevention, crisis intervention, and de-escalation. For example, we recently developed an evidence-based crisis intervention training for schools that helps adults identify and connect with students in crisis, and de-escalate tense situations. School climate is critical for students’ self-confidence and sense of belonging, all protective factors against violence.
  • Treat threats of violence as a sign of a student in crisis and respond with holistic intervention that includes mental health treatment, family involvement, and peer support, with long-term follow-up.
  • Work to establish strong relationships between adults and students in every school so that adults can identify students in crisis and students feel comfortable telling adults when they are concerned about their peers. Teachers and staff need the time, space, and resources to effectively intervene. Having a real connection with at least one adult in their lives may be the saving factor for a child.
  • Remind parents to keep guns secure. Violent intent might be there, but without the means or opportunity, a tragedy can be avoided.

In the end, safe and equitable schools help reduce gun violence in all forms.

Jillian Peterson, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Hamline University. James Densley, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University. Together, they formed The Violence Project – more information at www.theviolenceproject.org.

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