How Safe Are Our Schools?

The solution to our national mass shooting crisis requires more than a simple fix.

I doubt there’s anyone among us who didn’t feel like they’d been punched in the gut when they heard about the Connecticut mass murders of schoolchildren. Parents and school personnel, in particular, felt incredibly helpless as they mourned these deaths, knowing how difficult it would be to prevent a similar incident from happening in their local schools. Part of our compassionate response was based on our own fears as well as on the uncomfortable, jarring reminder that we really don’t have control over random events that result in destruction of lives. 

Those same fears are now motivating people to call for stricter gun control—and at the same time to call for armed guards at schools or training all teachers in how to shoot a gun. And while these ideas may make some people feel safer, they probably aren’t going to make our schools safer from people who are determined to do unspeakable harm to innocent people.

And just as we’re trying to make sense of that tragedy and figure out how to make our children safer, a high school student opens fire on his classmates at a school in California. What’s going on?

What’s most obvious is that this is a complex problem that requires a multi-pronged solution. We’ve endured so many of these mass shootings over the last several years, and the only common thread so far is that the perpetrators had access to firearms. That, however, doesn’t tell us why they acted. Until we get a better handle on that, banning firearms or, conversely, arming more people won’t make this problem go away.

Almost all schools in the country already have systems in place to deter those who might want to enter a school and do harm. Most have locked doors, video cameras, and annual lockdown drills, spurred in response to the Columbine shootings in 1999. Schools in known unsafe neighborhoods (where violence is, unfortunately, a real and daily occurrence) go a step further and generally use metal detectors and have someone stationed at the entrance to question every visitor.

These precautions are deterrents. They aren’t going to foil someone who’s armed and intent on getting in. The sad truth is that even in schools where an armed guard is on duty, an intruder would easily be able to shoot the guard first.

Almost 14 years ago, after Columbine, there was much discussion about the students who perpetrated the killings. They had carefully planned their attack, so the talk afterwards wondered why these students were bent on destroying their peers and teachers. Much analysis followed, along with ideas for how to ensure that we reach students like these before they do something so destructive. Did these students feel marginalized by others? Were they bullied? Was it violent video games, or the idea of gaining national attention, even posthumously? Was it the thrill of gaining the upper hand over others? Did anyone know of their plans? If so, why didn’t they tell someone else? One result of these discussions was a heightened awareness about the effects of bullying as well as an increased focus on social-emotional learning.

While our first thought is to physically protect those in schools from outside harm, we also need to address those who are struggling within them. Every child who exhibits anti-social tendencies or emotional imbalances is not going to harm others, but we need to be vigilant so that we can help all children learn how to relate appropriately with others. 

But this can’t—and shouldn’t—be just the teachers’ responsibility. Parents and literally every adult need to step up and teach kids how to be kind and caring as well as how to deal with those who aren’t kind and caring. There’s research and information available that focuses on helping children develop compassion and caring for others as well as helping them develop the skills to stand up to bullies. We need to make this a priority.

I realize the answer isn’t that simplistic. But I do believe we need to get better at identifying and working with those children who seem to lack empathy or a conscience. It’s a greater challenge to reach those who don’t seem to care, so it’s essential to have the resources—social workers, psychologists, counselors, outside facilities if necessary—that can support students who struggle emotionally or behaviorally. Parents who recognize that their children are struggling should talk to a physician and get some help for their children—the earlier the better. All should work together with the school to help the child.

Take a look at Illinois’ Social Emotional Learning Standards on the Illinois State Board of Education website: http://www.isbe.net/ils/social_emotional/standards.htm. There are only three standards, but they say it all. It’s time we agreed that helping children socially and emotionally is just as important as developing their cognitive abilities. 






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Thanks for writing Mary Ann-- until more people take the time to step up and really believe that ALL the children in our communities are our own, I am afraid these problems will continue. That means stepping up and talking to the school principal, a social worker or local clergy about children we are worried about. We need to get back to being more concerned for our neighbors, not in a nosy way-- but in a caring way. The internet and social media cannot take the place of real human interaction but I'm afraid that is what is happening.
Deke January 18, 2013 at 09:58 PM
Unfortunately, anyone who approaches a school principal to voice concerns about an unrelated child's mental health will probably end up as a defendant in a civil suit brought by the parent (or perhaps by the child). Given that risk, how many people will be willing to step forward -- particularly where the "evidence" only raises concerns but is not conclusive? There are no easy answers.


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