For the past 20 years our students, teachers and parents have endured the reality of school shootings. In the meantime, America’s gun violence epidemic, namely mass shootings, homicides, assaults, unintentional discharges, and firearm suicides, has been afflicting America’s schools. The failure of our leaders to address the primary causes of school gun violence from all aspects is causing devastating after-effects for millions of American children.
We need consequential action to protect our schools – action that addresses what we know about gun violence in America’s schools and precludes it from happening at the outset. It’s time for our leaders to adopt a functional methodology that provides the school community with the tools it needs to mediate and thwart school-based gun violence. We can’t let perilous notions, like arming teachers, dictate the debate. Simply put, an armed teacher cannot, in a moment of tremendous threat and chaos, morph into a strategically trained law enforcement officer. In actuality, an armed teacher is much more likely to hit a student bystander or be shot by law enforcement than to serve as an effectual resolution to an active shooter in a school.
Adaptable approaches include, concentrating on students’ health, sanctioning teachers and law enforcement to mediate when students exhibit signs they could be a danger to themselves or others, enhancing our schools’ physical security, and keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them to begin with.
A Strategic Plan
- Enact Red Flag Laws.
- Promote Responsible Firearm Storage.
- Raise the Age to Purchase Semiautomatic Firearms.
- Require Background Checks for All Gun Sales.
- Develop Threat Assessment Programs in Schools.
- Employ Expert-Endorsed School Security Upgrades.
- Introduce Operational Emergency Planning.
- Cultivate Safe and Impartial Schools.
Illustrate What Gun Violence in American Schools Looks Like
Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association want to provide policymakers and the public with the knowledge of how gun violence affects America’s schools. To achieve this goal, Everytown has updated its study of gun violence on school grounds. Analyzing this information and supplementing our data with research from other respected organizations, we determined the following:
- Individuals executing gun violence on school grounds typically have a connection to the school;
- Guns used in school-based violence usually come from home, or the homes of family or friends;
- Shooters often exhibit warning signs of potential violence; and
- Gun violence in American schools has an inconsistent effect on students of color.
Devise a Plan to Deter Gun Violence in Schools
The report offers a practical, research-informed intercession plan to thwart active shooter incidents and, more broadly, address gun violence in all its forms in American schools. As representatives of educational professionals from across the country, parents of school-aged children who volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (part of Everytown), and student activists through Everytown’s Students Demand Action chapters; it is crucial to help keep our kids safe at school with approaches that are proven effective. Using what we know about school gun violence our organizations have put together a plan that focuses on intervening before violence transpires. The first part of this plan focuses on preventing shooters from getting their hands on guns by passing functional laws including:
- Red Flag Laws so that law enforcement and family members can react to warning signs of violence, like those that repeatedly occurred in Parkland, and temporarily prevent access to firearms;
- Responsible firearm storage laws to deal with the most common source of guns used in school gun violence, including the guns that were used in the Santa Fe shooting;
- Raising the age to purchase semiautomatic firearms to 21 to prevent minors, like the shooter in Parkland, from easily obtaining guns; and
- Demanding background checks on all gun sales so people showing warning signs, minors, and people with dangerous histories can’t avoid our gun laws and obtain guns.
The second part of the plan concentrates on evidence-based, expert-endorsed actions that schools can execute. These solutions empower educators and law enforcement to mediate to address warning signs of violence and to keep shooters out of schools. Schools can do this via:
- Launching threat assessment programs in schools to understand and mediate when a student is a risk to themselves or others;
- Put basic security upgrades into practice to impede access to schools and classrooms;
- Planning beforehand for emergencies so staff can immediately lock out schools and law enforcement can respond quickly; and
- Founding safe and unbiased schools to help decrease gun violence, specifically in high-risk communities.
These solutions work concurrently to foster safe schools, address violence at its earliest stages and prevent easy firearms access by individuals who would do harm.
Prevent Schools from Arming Teachers
Arming teachers and permitting more guns in our schools poses a threat to our children. The vast majority of research reveals that permitting teachers to carry guns in schools increases the risks to children, this report demonstrates that it is unrealistic to believe a teacher would be able to protect their students, disable a shooter, and not be a risk to themselves and to their students. Alternately, the report urges our leaders to adopt proven solutions that concentrate what we know about school gun violence.
Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund (“Everytown”) seeks to expand our understanding of the causes of gun violence and the means to decrease it – by conducting innovative research, creating evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge in the courts and the court of public opinion.
How Gun Violence Impacts America’s Schools
Everytown’s database of gunfire on school grounds specifies the innumerable ways that gun violence appears in American schools. After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook School in 2012, Everytown started tracking all cases of gunfire on school grounds. The aim of this project was to construct a comprehensive national database that included all scenarios containing gunfire on school grounds. Intrinsically, Everytown developed a definition that was deliberately broad, including incidents defined as follows:
Any time a gun discharges a live round inside (or into) a school building, or on (or onto) a school campus or grounds, where “school” pertains to elementary, middle, and high schools – K-12 – in addition to colleges and universities.
From 2013 to 2018, Everytown recognized 405 incidents of gunfire on school grounds. Of these, 260 occurred on the grounds of an elementary, middle, or high school, causing 109 deaths and 219 injuries. While Everytown’s database includes higher-education institutions, all numbers and analyses reflect only those incidents that transpired on the grounds of elementary, middle, or high schools.
This analysis reveals that mass shootings like the incident at Sandy Hook – and, more recently, Parkland and Santa Fe – are not typical. They represent less than 1% of total school gun violence incidents; however, these incidents represent an unbalanced share of the overall deaths and injuries from school gun violence. Mass shootings also are inflicting an unknown amount of trauma on a generation of students. It is incomprehensible that our leaders have not taken the necessary precautions to address and help individuals with patterns of violent behavior and to impede their easy access to guns.
The analysis also indicates that other incidents of gun violence are transpiring in our schools with alarming frequency. These include homicide and assaults; unintentional discharges resulting in injury or death; and, to a marginally lesser extent, self-harm and suicide deaths using a firearm.
All of these occurrences of gun violence, irrespective of their aim or victim count, compromise the safety of our schools – safety that directly influences learning outcomes and the emotional and social development of our students. A growing body of research indicates that the lingering trauma from exposure to gun violence affects everything from ability to maintain attention to overall enrollment numbers and performance on standardized tests. To tackle all of these occurrences, a wider range of solutions is necessary.
The bulk of gun violence incidents in elementary, middle, and high schools – 56% – are homicides, assaults, and mass shootings. Everytown pinpointed only three mass shootings – incidents where a shooter killed 4 or more people – in an elementary, middle, or high school between 2013 and 2018. Far more widespread were incidents involving specific individuals, arguments that intensified, acts of domestic violence, parking lot altercations, and robberies where the school was an unfortunate locale.
While mass shootings in schools are rare, comprising only 1% of school gun violence incidents, they account for more than a quarter (28%) of overall deaths in schools and 14% of overall injuries. And the statistics do not begin to encapsulate the communal influence these shootings have on the schools where they transpire, their communities, and all students and parents.
During the last six years, there were 131 homicides and assaults with a firearm that transpired on the grounds of elementary, middle, and high schools. These incidents culminated at least 248 victims: 74 deaths and 174 non-fatal gunshot injuries. Approximately 130 of these victims were students at the time.
Roughly 20% of gunfire incidents that occurred on the grounds of elementary, middle, and high schools were unintentional including those causing injury or death and incidents in which no one was shot. These 47 incidents caused at least one death and 32 non-fatal gunshot injuries. At least 21 of these victims were students when the incidents occurred.
Suicide Deaths and Attempts
12% of elementary, middle, and high school gunfire incidents involved suicide deaths and attempts where the shooter did not intent to harm other people. These 28 incidents resulted in 24 deaths and four injuries. Approximately 22 of the victims were students at the time.
Legal Intercessions and Unspecified Incidents
12% – were legal intercessions or other occurrences where the intention of the shooter falls outside of the categories listed here.
These 29 incidents caused eight deaths and four injuries. Incidents involving legal intercession are those in which the shooter or potential shooter was shot or shot at by a law enforcement officer. Unstipulated incidents include, but are not limited to, those in which a firearm was discharged into the air, those in which a gun was discharged but harm was caused to others through other means, and those in which a gun was discharged with intent to damage buildings or other property.
Understanding Gun Violence Incidents
Understanding incidents of gun violence in schools is essential to successfully creating an all-inclusive plan to tackle their threat and effects. Examining Everytown’s gunfire on school grounds dataset and relevant studies from other respected organizations, there are several common lessons that influence our school safety proposals.
Individuals Discharging Guns on School Grounds Frequently Have a Connection to the School
Everytown’s analysis of gunfire on school grounds reveals that across all forms of gun violence in America’s schools, shooters frequently have a connection to the school. Generally, 56% were associated with the school – they were either current or former students, staff, faculty, or school resource officers. Of the 109 shooters involved in homicides and assaults, 40% were current or former students. Of the 46 shooters involved in unintentional discharges, 67% were current or former students. Finally, of the 27 shooters involved in self-harm injuries and suicide deaths, 89% were current or former students.
Studying only active shooters – those shooters who are actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill others in a school – the numbers are higher. An analysis of the New York Police Department’s review of active shooter incidents found that in 75% of these incidents at K-12 schools, the shooter or shooters were school-aged and were current or former students of the school. This data suggests that school-based intercessions, like threat assessment programs, can be an efficient tool for addressing school gun violence.
The Guns are Obtained from Home, Family, or Friends
Evidence indicates that the vast majority school shooters obtain their guns from family, relatives, or friends instead of purchasing them legally or illegally. Everytown was able to identify the gun source in 51% of the incidents that involved shooters under 18 years old (a total of 100 shooters). Most of these shooters –78% – obtained the gun(s) from their home or the homes of relatives or friends. This finding is consistent with other studies showing that 68 to 80% of school shooters under the age of 18 acquired the gun(s) used from their home or the homes of relatives or friends. This data indicates that responsible storage laws can be an effectual tool in addressing the source of guns used in school gun violence.
There are Usually Warning Signs
Specifically for active shooter incidents, there are usually warning signs. These warning signs, if properly identified, can provide a chance for intervention. The United States Secret Service and the United States Department of Education studied targeted school violence incidents and discovered that in 93% of cases there were behavioral warning signs that caused others to be concerned. They also discovered that in 81% of incidents, other people, most often the shooter’s peers, had some type of knowledge about the shooter’s plans. This data indicates that Red Flag Laws, which allow family and law enforcement to temporarily restrict a person’s access to guns when they are a risk to themselves or others, can be effective tools for keeping guns out of the hands of active shooters.
Gun Violence in American Schools Has a Disproportionate Bearing on Students of Color
While perpetrators of mass shootings in schools have tended to be white, and the popular narrative around school shootings has focused on primarily white schools, the larger context of gunfire on school grounds presents a very different picture. Among the 253 shooting incidents at K-12 schools where the racial demographic information of the student body was known, 64% transpired in majority-minority schools. The burden of gun violence has a particularly outsized impact on Black students. Although Black students represent approximately 15% of the total K-12 school population in America, they comprise 24% of K-12 student victims of gunfire (those who were killed or injured on school grounds where the race of the victim was known). This implies that creating safe and impartial schools in communities with high rates of gun violence can help address these broader trends.
A Thorough Plan for Thwarting Mass Shootings and Other Gun Violence in Our Schools
Custom-tailored Gun Violence Prevention Policies and Intercessions
In order to efficiently address gun violence in our schools, it must first be recognized that it is, in fact, a gun violence problem. There have been many “comprehensive” school safety plans recommended over the last 20 years. Few have effectively and thoroughly addressed the issue common in all school shootings: easy access to guns by those at risk of committing harm. Everytown, AFT, and NEA firmly believe that any effective school safety plan must involve a proactive effort to enact meaningful gun violence prevention policies that allow intercession before a prospective shooter can get his or her hands on a gun. These gun violence prevention solutions work hand in hand with school-based intervention policies to intervene before a shooter ever sets foot on school grounds.
Act on Warning Signs by Enacting Red Flag Laws
As with most active shooter incidents in schools, there were warning signs in advance of the Parkland shooting. Nearly 30 people knew about the shooter’s violent behavior and law enforcement had been called to incidents involving the shooter on more than 20 occasions; however, the shooter legally bought the gun he used. He had never been convicted of a crime and his mental health history did not legally preclude him from buying or having guns. Accounts of the shooting show that law enforcement and the shooter’s family had no legal recourse to address the shooter’s easy access to guns.
To bridge this critical gap in our laws, Everytown, AFT, and NEA recommend that states pass Red Flag Laws. Red Flag Laws create a legal process whereby law enforcement and family members can petition a court to prevent a person from having access to firearms when there is proof that they are a risk of harming themselves or others.
Red Flag Laws are a crucial intervention tool that can be used to prevent violent situations. When family or law enforcement is made aware that a student or another person is a risk to themselves or others, and that the person has access to guns, they can go to a court and ask a judge for a civil restraining order. These Red Flag Orders, commonly known as extreme risk protection orders, can only be issued only after an identifiable legal determination is made that a person poses a threat to him or herself or others. They also contain strong due process protections to ensure that a person’s rights are balanced with public safety. Once an order is issued, a person is required to surrender any guns they have and is prohibited from buying new guns. This prohibition is temporary, usually lasting 1 year.
Since the vast majority of active shooters show warning signs, Red Flag Laws are a crucial tool for interceding before a violent student acts on their threats. There is strong evidence that these laws can prevent acts of violence before they happen. In Maryland, according to leaders of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, a recently passed Red Flag Law has been cited in at least 4 cases involving “significant threats” against schools. In Florida, a Red Flag Law passed in 2018 has been invoked in multiple cases of potential school violence, including in the case of a student who was accused of stalking an ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill himself, and in another in which a potential school shooter said killing people would be “fun and addicting.”
Red Flag Laws can also be used to help address firearm suicide in schools. One study found that following Connecticut’s increased enforcement of its Red Flag Law, the firearm suicide rate decreased by 14%. The same study revealed that in the 10 years following the passage of Indiana’s Red Flag Law, the firearm suicide rate decreased by 7.5%.
Since Red Flag Laws are an established tool, and since they are drafted with strong due process protections, they have strong bipartisan support. The Federal Commission on School Safety, which was convened by President Trump following the shootings at Parkland and Santa Fe, recently sanctioned Red Flag Laws as an effective tool to prevent school gun violence. 8 states, including Florida, as well as Washington, D.C., have passed Red Flag Laws since the Parkland shooting; 5 of them were signed by Republican governors. In all, 15 states and D.C. now have documented Red Flag Laws.
4 states that have already ratified Red Flag Laws, public awareness is a strategic factor for successful execution. These states should train law enforcement on the availability and effective use of these laws. States and community members should also initiate public awareness campaigns to make the public aware of the option to get a Red Flag Order. On the whole, these laws are a common-sense method for acting on the warning signs commonly found in active shooter incidents and they can be an efficient means of diminishing firearm suicide.
Ratify Responsible Firearm Storage Laws, Enforce Them, and Raise Awareness
In Santa Fe, TX, on May 18th, 2018, a student walked into Santa Fe High School and shot and killed 10 students and staff members and injured 13 others. He had taken the firearms he used in the shooting from his father who had neglected to store them responsibly. The most common source of guns used in school shootings and across all school gun violence is from the shooter’s home, the homes of friends, or the homes of relatives. This isn’t surprising, since approximately 4.6 million American children live in homes with at least one gun that is loaded and unlocked. Everytown, AFT, and NEA recommend that states enact and enforce responsible firearm storage laws, often known as child access prevention laws. Moreover, policymakers should promote public awareness programs that can inspire responsible storage and incite behavior change.
These laws necessitate that people store firearms responsibly when they are not in their possession to prevent unauthorized access. Under these laws generally, if and when a person accesses a firearm and does harm with it, the person who failed to adequately store the firearm is accountable. A common form of responsible storage laws, child access prevention laws, are very specific and they hold individuals accountable only when minors access irresponsibly stored firearms. 19 states and D.C. currently have some form of responsible storage law. In addition, several cities, including New York City; San Francisco; Seattle; and Edmonds, Washington, have ratified responsible storage laws.
Studies reveal that these laws can have a positive effect on thwarting gun violence, chiefly on unintentional shootings and firearm suicide. One study indicated that households that locked both firearms and ammunition were associated with a 78% lower risk of self-inflicted firearm injuries and an 85% lower risk of unintentional firearm injuries among children and teenagers, than those that locked neither. Given what is known about the source of guns in school gun violence, evidence indicates that these laws can help avert underage shooters from accessing irresponsibly stored guns in homes and avert mass shootings and other violent incidents.
Enforcement and public awareness are vital elements in making sure that these laws work to create a culture of responsible gun storage. To facilitate effective enforcement, state legislatures need to make sure their laws are accurately written to cover access by all minors under the age of 18. Local officials also need to ensure that they are enforcing these laws in appropriate situations.
In addition to enacting responsible storage laws, policymakers should promote a culture of responsible gun storage by increasing awareness of responsible storage practices. For years, Moms Demand Action has run a program called Be SMART. This program concentrates on encouraging conversations about responsible storage among parents and children to help simplify behavior change and address the hundreds of unintentional shootings committed and experienced by children every year. The acronym SMART encourages: Secure Guns in Homes and Vehicles, Model Responsible Behavior, Ask About Unsecured Guns in Homes, Recognize the Role of Guns in Suicide, Tell Your Peers to Be Smart. The Be SMART model can be used to encourage responsible storage practices. State legislatures, non-profit organizations, and local officials should also work together to develop and fund programs that increase awareness of the need to store firearms responsibly in order to avert unauthorized access.
Passing responsible storage laws, enforcing them, and encouraging responsible storage practices will help diminish gun violence in schools and directly intercede to address the most common source of firearms used in school gun violence incidents.
Increase the Minimum Age to Purchase Semi-Automatic Firearms to 21
Regardless of research that indicates most active shooters are school-aged and have a connection to the school and data that show that 18 to 20-year-olds commit gun homicides at a rate four times higher than adults 21 and older, few states have stepped in to close gaps that allow minors to legally purchase high-powered firearms. Everytown, AFT, and NEA believe states and the federal government should raise the minimum age to purchase or possess handguns and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns to 21 in order to prevent school-aged shooters from easily obtaining firearms.
To purchase a handgun from a licensed gun dealer under federal law, a person must be 21; however, to purchase that same handgun in an unlicensed sale, or to purchase a rifle or shotgun from a licensed dealer, a person only needs to be 18. Only a few states have made an effort to close these gaps.
These flaws in the law leave an easy path for active shooters to acquire firearms. Because he was under 21, the Parkland shooter could not have gone into a gun store and bought a handgun, but he was able to legally buy the AR-15 he used in the shooting. Following the shooting, Florida changed its law to raise the age to purchase firearms to 21. Minimum age laws can work in tandem with responsible storage and Red Flag Laws to cut off an easy way for shooters to acquire firearms.
Mandate Background Checks on All Gun Sales
Background checks are essential to enforcing our gun laws and are an effective tool for keeping guns out of the hands of people with dangerous pasts. As part of a comprehensive plan to prevent gun violence in schools, Everytown, AFT, and NEA propose that states and the federal government act to pass laws that require background checks on all gun sales so that shooters cannot easily purchase firearms.
Current federal law requires that background checks be conducted whenever a person attempts to purchase a firearm from a licensed gun dealer, to ensure that the prospective buyer is not legally prohibited from possessing guns. For example, when a person becomes subject to a Red Flag Order, that record is entered into the federal background check database, and a background check at the point of sale prevents that person from buying a firearm at a gun store; however, current federal law does not require background checks on sales between unlicensed parties. This means that people with dangerous pasts can easily evade the background check system by purchasing their firearm online or at a gun show.
A recent Everytown investigation showed that as many as 1 in 9 people arranging to buy a firearm on Armslist.com, the nation’s largest online gun marketplace, are people who cannot legally have firearms, including because they are minors under 18. And the unlicensed sale marketplace is enormous: the same investigation found that in 2018 there were 1.2 million ads for the sale of a firearm that would not be subject to a background check. A 2015 survey indicated that nearly a quarter of Americans – 22% – who acquired a firearm within the past 2 years did so without a background check.
Background checks are an essential part of any school safety plan because they are our most comprehensive strategy to stop minors, people subject to Red Flag Orders, and other people who shouldn’t have guns from accessing them. Without background checks, guns are easily accessible in the online and gun show markets, no questions asked, making it difficult for law enforcement to detect violations of the law and undercutting the other strategies to keep guns out of the hands of shooters.
Background checks are proven to reduce gun violence. State laws requiring background checks for all handgun sales – by point-of-sale check and/or permit – are associated with lower firearm homicide rates, lower firearm suicide rates, and lower firearm trafficking. When Connecticut passed a law requiring background checks for a handgun purchase permit and at the point of sale, its firearm homicide rate decreased by 40% and its firearm suicide rate decreased by 15%. Background checks decrease gun violence and are a vital mainstay for any school gun violence prevention strategy.
Safeguarding Schools via Threat Identification, Security Upgrades, Emergency Planning, and Safe School Environments
Create Threat Valuation Programs
The most important thing that schools can do to prevent active shooter incidents – and gun violence overall – is to intercede before a person commits an act of violence. Early intercession is key to addressing probable violent behavior and to providing students appropriate treatment. Everytown, AFT, and NEA encourage schools to create threat assessment programs and form threat assessment teams in their schools. State legislatures should also make funding available for schools to establish threat assessment programs.
Threat assessment programs enable schools to classify students who are at a risk of committing violence in order to resolve student threat incidents by getting them the help they need. The programs typically include multi-disciplinary teams that are specifically trained to intercede at the earliest warning signs of probable violence and divert those who would do harm to themselves or others to suitable treatment.
Threat assessment teams are universally recommended by school safety experts. The theory of the program is rooted in the groundbreaking study on “targeted school violence” by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education. A 2002 F.B.I. report states that “By far the most valuable prevention strategy identified was the threat assessment and management team,” and a 2018 Department of Homeland Security report (ostensibly about improving physical security of schools) stated that “preventing violence by detecting and addressing these [behavioral] red flags is more effective than any physical security measure.” Moreover, reports from federal agencies under the Bush and Trump administrations, including the recent Federal Commission on School Safety report, recommend schools employ school threat assessment programs.
As a model, Everytown, AFT, and NEA endorse the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (VSTAG) which was created by Dr. Dewey Cornell at the University of Virginia. VSTAG is a national leader in school-based threat assessment. The program is also listed on the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, an evidence-based repository and review system designed to provide the public with reliable information on mental health and substance use interventions.
Research Shows Threat Assessment Programs are Effective
Several studies have determined that schools that have used threat assessment programs see as few as 0.5 to 3.5% of students attempt or execute their threat of violence, with none of the threats that were execute being serious threats to kill, shoot, or seriously injure someone. Schools with VSTAG threat assessment programs also see fewer expulsions, suspensions, and fewer arrests. Notably, studies have shown that VSTAG threat assessment programs generally do not have an inconsistent impact on students of color. Of course, schools should monitor and collect their own data to ensure that communities of color and students with disabilities are not inconsistently impacted in local threat assessment programs.
Key Features of a Successful Threat Assessment Program
There are several keys to launching a successful threat assessment program that schools should contemplate when they launch these programs.
Effective threat assessment programs must have a system to identify and collect information about threats of violence. The U.S. Secret Service recommends schools start tip-lines that can be used to promote the sharing and collection of information about threats. Schools may also consider using a program like Sandy Hook Promise’s “Know The Signs” and “Say Something” campaigns, which train students on warning signs and encourage them to report potentially violent behavior. Where suitable, social media monitoring software can be used to scan social media sites for threats and potential warning signs. Having a mechanism to identify threats is key to ensuring those threats can be effectively addressed by a threat assessment team.
Determine if a Student Has Access to Guns
Since the most common sources of guns used in school gun violence are the home or the homes of family or friends, threat assessment teams must work to determine if students at risk of violence have access to firearms. This practice is recommended by the U.S. Secret Service. Threat assessment teams can build this practice into their standard procedures for collecting information when investigating a threat. There are several non-intrusive ways that this information can be collected including: talking to parents and students and reviewing social media posts to determine if a student has access to firearms.
Guarantee that Adequate Counselors are Provided to Assist Students
As part of an efficient threat assessment strategy, and to ensure successful student outcomes and violence reduction overall, schools need to ensure that students have adequate access to counselors.
Counselors help direct our children in some of their most important decisions. They can serve as a critical resource for them as they navigate the education system and the challenges of emotional and social development. Counselors may also be amongst the first to know when students are having problems or when they are at a risk for violence. Counselors can direct students through emotional or behavioral problems and can serve as a key point of intervention and information gathering for threat assessment programs.
Yet data amassed by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling and the American School Counselor Association show that the national student-to-counselor ratio is much higher than best practices dictate. At present, on average, each counselor handles about 482 students. The recommended best practice is that each counselor be responsible for no more than 250 students. To protect our schools and ensure that threat assessment programs are effective, legislatures need to fund – and schools need to prioritize – an adequate number of counselors in schools.
Employ Basic Security Upgrades
In 2017, as the sound of gunshots rang out across campus, school administrators at Rancho Tehama Elementary School in Tehama County, CA made a crucial decision. They immediately put their campus on lockdown, ushering students and teachers inside, locking internal doors, and locking out anyone who attempted to enter. As a shooter approached, crashing through an external gate, he was not to enter the school building. Frustrated, he gave up and left school grounds before ultimately being stopped by law enforcement.
Physical security is an essential intervention point to keep guns out of schools. The most effective physical security measures – the ones that are agreed on by most experts – are access control measures that keep shooters out of schools in the first place. As a secondary measure, internal door locks, that allow teachers to lock doors from the inside, can work to dissuade active shooters who do gain access, protecting students and allowing law enforcement time to neutralize any probable threat.
Naturally, one of the biggest challenges with security upgrades is sustaining a hospitable school environment. Schools cannot become prisons. Everytown, AFT, and NEA support basic security measures universally recommended by school safety experts, such as access control and internal door locks, while recommending that schools also consider other expert-endorsed security measures based on local conditions.
When a shooter arrived on the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, FL, numerous significant access control failures provided him with easy access to the school. He was dropped off outside of a perimeter fence. This fence had a gate that was open and left unattended. The shooter took advantage of this and entered the school campus. As he entered Building 12 where the fatal shooting occurred, he exploited another critical safety failure as the door was left unlocked and accessible to anyone. In fact the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission found that “[t]he overall lack of uniform and mandated physical site security requirements resulted in voids that allowed [the shooter] initial access to MSDHS and is a system failure.”
Most experts, including the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission and the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, agree that access control should be a component of any school security plan. Preventing unauthorized access to schools through fencing, single access points, and by simply ensuring doors are locked can keep shooters out of schools. State legislatures should endow funding for access control measures for schools to ensure that would-be shooters cannot have easy access to schools.
Interior Door Locks
In both Sandy Hook and Parkland, teachers had to step outside of their classrooms while the shooting was happening to lock their doors. This endangered educators and students. Doors that were left unlocked were unsecured and vulnerable. That is why school safety experts, like the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, concur that schools should ensure that classroom doors lock from the inside as well as the outside. Interior door locks can mean the difference between life and death in an active shooter situation. Everytown, AFT, and NEA recommend that all schools equip doors with interior door locks to help prevent shooters from gaining access to classrooms and to add an additional protection barrier from an active shooter.
Institute Emergency Planning and Preparation
When a gun violence incident does transpire on school grounds, planning and preparation are essential to ensuring an effective response. Everytown, AFT, and NEA advocate that schools, in collaboration with law enforcement, plan for the unlikely event of a gun violence emergency or active shooter incident.
Security experts unanimously agree that schools need to establish an effective emergency plan in place. Emergency plans can serve as an additional point of intervention by allowing law enforcement, students, or staff to respond swiftly to and neutralize any threat. The Federal Emergency Management Agency upholds a six-point guide for developing high-quality emergency response plans for schools. This guide emphasizes collaboration and advance planning to help assuage emergency incidents.
For active shooter incidents, the guide notes that “…it is critical that schools work with first responders, emergency management staff, and all community partners to identify, prepare, prevent, and effectively respond to an active shooter situation in a coordinated fashion.” Doing so can help save lives. Recommendations for effective planning include efforts to ensure that schools work with law enforcement and first responders to provide information about the school’s layout and security measures, that staff and law enforcement work together to ensure that they can pinpoint the nature of a threat, and that schools plan out their lockdown and evacuation procedures.