The recent tragedy at a Texas elementary school ignited more questions about how and why another school shooting occurred. Responses to prevent school shootings will undoubtedly include suggestions for new legislation, increased funding and additional security staffing. While I can appreciate the desire for a simple solution to preventing all targeted violence in schools, unfortunately, there is none.
School shootings, like many cancers, don’t have cures, only treatment. But as with many cancers, there is evidence that steps can be taken to reduce the risk of school shootings.
Following a tragedy, “school security experts” often recommend products or procedures that will stop school shootings. The truth is that it is only through comprehensive systems and strategies that we can hope to mitigate these tragedies.
Simply stated, we must not only identify and implement solutions to address school safety; we need solutions to disrupt an individual’s pathway to violence, as well.
When you consider the physical security of a school, a structural “trap” in an entryway is only effective if the shooter chooses that specific route. And when schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on any physical security enhancements, everyone knows about it, including the shooter. An office filled with flatscreens showing live-feed coverage of every hallway in a school will only be beneficial as a post-incident evidence tool, unless they are constantly monitored and staff are trained on what to do if they see a threat. Purchasing products as a solution to security requires training and staffing to be of any effect.
A key focus for preventing targeted violence in schools is disrupting the individual’s pathway that leads them to commit these horrendous acts. A common misconception is that perpetrators of these attacks just “snap”; however, the evidence contradicts this theory. Research of historical events involving mass casualty incidents reveals that the attackers had a pathway that led up to the violent act.
A more recent and significant addition to school-safety enhancements is implementation of behavioral threat assessments. The value of assessing risks and applying interventions early on the pathway to violence is that it can help prevent violence.
That said, only creating a list of threat-assessment team members may allow schools to “check the box” that they’ve met a state mandate, but if that team doesn’t meet, train and manage cases, the checked box provides no value.
Additionally, as beneficial as threat-assessment teams and procedures are, they have no value if concerns do not get reported.
The ability of students, staff and communities to report concerns is a critical component of the school-safety network. Programs such as the Safe2Say Something program implemented throughout Pennsylvania educate youth and adults on how to recognize and subsequently report warning signs. The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General facilitates the anonymous-reporting program and ensures expeditious triaging of reported risks and networking with both schools and law enforcement.
Unfortunately, there is no way to quantify how many violent acts were prevented as a result of disrupting an individual’s pathway to violence. We can only quantify when these systems fail.
While we mourn for lives lost that day, I am positive that pathways to violence were also disrupted in schools across the country. Anonymous tips were made, threat-assessment teams met, and resources were provided for students at risk.
As someone who has dedicated a career to making safer schools and as a father of two sons attending public schools, I wish I could provide a single solution that would guarantee a stop to school violence.
What I will posit is that school safety requires collaboration, cooperation and coordination. The synergy between every program, every policy and every tool must exist to increase any potential for violence prevention. While applying and combining these school-safety efforts provides no guarantees, it will tremendously stack the deck in schools’ favor to reduce the risk of being another site of violence.
Joey Melvin is the director of the Center for Safe Schools in Pennsylvania and the Region 3 director for the National Association of School Resource Officers. The Center for Safe Schools is an initiative of the Center for Schools and Communities.