While a very small percentage of gun deaths occur on school grounds, an estimated 67 children are shot in America’s K-12 schools each year. And the ripple effect of school gun violence goes well beyond those who are injured or killed — children who witness gunfire or know a classmate who was killed are also affected. The Washington Post estimates that since the Columbine shooting in 1999, more than 240,000 children in the United States “have experienced gun violence at school.”
Though few school shootings have occurred since the Covid-19 pandemic closed school buildings, violence has not stopped. May 2020 saw the highest number of mass shootings since 2013. Gun sales have increased precipitously over the past few months. As schools slowly reopened this fall, there was even a push for “socially distanced” lockdown drills.
But we do not have to accept the current status quo as inevitable. School gun violence remains largely preventable.
“School gun violence remains largely preventable.”
To ask K-12 schools to prepare for the possibility of gun violence while also in the middle of a pandemic stretches their limited resources, causes further stress and exacerbates existing inequities. What if we took this moment to reimagine our collective response to the decades-long persistence of school gun violence so that we could offer schools some concrete steps that would keep our children safer?
This is especially important as school gun violence continues to have a disparate impact on children of color. For example, Black students experience school shootings at twice the rate of their white peers. (Frustratingly, the public perception is often the opposite because there is such heavy media coverage of shootings that take place in predominately white schools.)
So far, we have responded to school gun violence in often very expensive ways that have little evidence of success. We have taught students how to hide quietly while they practice “active shooter drills.” We have armed teachers and other school staff. We have invested millions of dollars into the hardening of schools, equipping classrooms with bulletproof white boards and students with bulletproof backpacks. We have installed metal detectors. We have taught students and school staff how to administer first-aid in the case of traumatic blood loss from a bullet wound. Yet, rates of gun violence in K-12 schools persist.
Current safety efforts focus almost entirely on how to respond in the moment of a shooting. What if, instead, we invested in stopping these tragedies from happening in the first place? We could go a lot further in reducing gun violence by providing evidence-informed opportunities for prevention well before someone chooses to bring a gun to a school.
“…the need to strengthen our school communities has never been more important.”
We could involve school nurses in educating families about how to store guns safely and securely, and we could support educators in teaching firearm safety. We could replace punitive discipline strategies with trauma-informed practices. We could teach social-emotional learning, support programs that address the needs of the whole child, cultivate an inclusive school climate and engage parents in the school community. We could increase the capacity of mental-health professionals to serve youth in school settings or connect them with community-based services where needed.
There’s more to be done on the policy front as well. We could eradicate school policies that encourage over-policing. And we could change policies at the state and federal levels to make it fundamentally harder for youth to access guns.
There’s evidence that implementing this kind of comprehensive safety plan would be effective. For example, some of these strategies have been linked to reductions in youth engagement in aggressive and violent behaviors as well as access to firearms.
Moreover, measures like these could form a comprehensive school gun violence prevention strategy, which would save countless lives and pay off in ways that go beyond the prevention of acts of gun violence themselves. We would likely see improvement in children’s overall well-being, a more nurturing school climate, increased academic engagement and reductions in other forms of violent behaviors.
240,000 – the estimated number of children who have experienced gun violence at school since 1999
And given the upticks in gun sales that we have observed over the past few months — which are directly linked to increases in gun violence — there’s even greater urgency to think through and implement evidence-oriented solutions that focus on the safety of our children whenever schools fully reopen.
Solutions are possible. We have seen what happens when resources, innovation and political will are applied to other social problems. In the early 1980s, we set legal limits for blood alcohol concentration levels in drivers, ensured that cars included state-of-the-art safety features, invested in public education and worked closely with law enforcement to keep roads safe. As a result, car accidents resulting from drunk driving declined significantly.
As we continue to grapple with the many ramifications of Covid-19, the need to strengthen our school communities has never been more important. We must attend to the collective needs of our children, their teachers and school staff. Let’s challenge the notion that school gun violence is inevitable and, instead, seek better ways to prevent it.
Sonali Rajan is an associate professor of health education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Charles Branas is the Gelman professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.
This story about gun violence in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.