‘Somebody has to notice’: How schools can help prevent school shootings
Experts say the key is looking out for and reporting warning signs, while providing help to students who are struggling emotionally
The country was forced to witness its deadliest school shooting in 10 years on Tuesday, when an 18-year-old gunned down 19 children and two teachers in a fourth-grade classroom at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Local education leaders and experts say it’s a reminder of what schools can and should be doing in hopes of preventing such a horror from happening at home.
“It sort of feels like a nightmare when you have these innocent children, at the beginning of their lives, lose their lives,” San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said. “But it is another reminder of how important it is to have a protocol that is followed, because I do believe it can save lives.”
As more school shootings have happened over the years, school leaders and experts say they have learned more about the kinds of warning signs to look for and how to help students before they get to the point of thinking of or formulating plans for violence. The gunmen of the country’s largest school shootings, including Sandy Hook, Parkland and now Robb Elementary in Uvalde, were not older adults far removed from the schools, but they were all under 21 years old and had attended school in the communities where they carried out their attacks.
“All too often in the aftermath of these shootings, we find out that many people were concerned and that some people knew that an attack was being planned and they didn’t believe it,” said Bob Mueller, coordinator of special projects at the San Diego County Office of Education, which trains schools on threat assessment and how to respond to active shooter events. “We need to be more responsive than that.”
Warning signs can pop up in a student’s drawings, creative writing, conversations with peers and, perhaps most commonly, on their social media pages, Mueller said.
They can be threats along the lines of, “Wait and see what happens on Tuesday. They’ll get theirs,” or “You shouldn’t come to school on Tuesday,” Mueller said. They can be pictures of weapons, statements about hurting people, statements validating acts of violence, statements voicing interest in acts of violence or weapons, or statements indicating a grudge, of feeling that they have been wronged, or statements that they are angry or in pain, Mueller said.
It’s important to tell an adult at school, preferably an administrator, right away about the threat, Mueller said. If the threat was found online, the person who sees it should take a screenshot, he added.
When a school learns of a potential threat, it’s crucial for the school to have a threat assessment team, which should include the school principal, a school resource officer or other law enforcement officer, a school psychologist, and a school counselor or social worker. That team is in charge of evaluating the threat and seeing whether it is substantive.
For example, a threat is more likely to be substantive if the student has access to weapons, has a history of violence and has made specific plans for violence, Mueller said.
There’s a countywide school threat assessment team including law enforcement officers, school officials, prosecutors and mental health professionals that analyzes threats reported to the District Attorney’s Office and decides what intervention is appropriate. In the past 16 months, the countywide team has reviewed 43 school threat cases, Stephan said. Of those, 10 were serious enough that the District Attorney’s Office filed charges.
“We do believe that this protocol has prevented the loss of life in several cases,” said Stephan, who prosecuted the case of San Diego County’s last school shooting in 2010, which injured two second-graders at Kelly Elementary in Carlsbad.
Mueller said a school assessment team’s response to a threat varies depending on how far along the student is in contemplating violence. If a student shows warning signs but hasn’t gotten to the point of formulating a plan to hurt others, the school can create a plan for the student that includes counseling, support and monitoring. For example, the plan could involve the parent ensuring their child has no access to weapons at home.
The plan should also involve having an adult on campus who will meet with the student regularly and serve as a positive influence in their life, Mueller said.
“The emphasis of the safety plan is, how do we bring this person back into the community and how do we recognize whether or not things are getting better or worse,” he said.
Beyond reporting potential threats, the most important thing schools can do to prevent shootings is to make sure that students who are struggling emotionally get the help they need before they get to the point of considering violence, Mueller said. Often school shooters have said they felt betrayed, abandoned or wronged.
“We have to know our kids well enough to know when they’re hurting, and we have to be able to respond well to support them,” Mueller said. “When we have kids who we think are unreachable, then we’re leaving the door open for that suffering to grow and fester into something that could lead to violence.”
Staff at every school should go through their list of students, child by child, and designate at least one adult at school that the student is connected to, Mueller said.
“It sounds like a simple idea, but it’s the only way to be sure,” he said. “Somebody has to notice. If a child suddenly stops showing up to school, who’s going to notice and who’s going to find out why? If a kid appears to be sad or withdrawn, who’s going to ask why and try to help them and not give up until things are getting better? We can’t leave this to chance.”
Mueller said school shootings, while devastating, are relatively rare, considering that there are more than 50 million K-12 students nationwide and tens of thousands of schools. There have been 119 school shootings since 2018, in which 88 people have died and 229 people were injured, according to Education Week.
Mueller said the challenge is balancing preparation for and prevention of mass shootings without making schools a place where children are afraid for their safety.
“Schools need to be a place where kids can come to and feel safe and laugh and learn and flourish,” Mueller said. “We just have to be careful that we don’t let ourselves be overcome by fear and make school a negative place for kids.”
Before Kelly Elementary in 2010, San Diego County had at least four other school shootings in recent history.
In March 2001, there were two shootings: one in which a 15-year-old killed two students and injured 13 others at Santana High School in Santee, and another in which an 18-year-old injured five at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon.
In August 1996, a master’s degree student shot and killed three San Diego State University professors on campus.
And in January 1979, a 16-year-old killed the principal and a custodian and injured nine others at the now-closed Cleveland Elementary School in the Lake Murray neighborhood.
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