Practical Steps for Schools and Hometowns to Address Gun Threats and Violence

Scott Repasky
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School Gun Violence and Threats

In the United States, there have been at least 187 school shooting incidents since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999; resulting in at least 83 fatalities, 187 injuries, and 87 people arrested or detained.[1] To put the gravity of these events in context, the number of fatalities in school shootings from 1999 through 2009 is greater than the total number of U.S. military fatalities in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.[2] Violence at school and in other public areas is a serious problem. In districts across the country, the safety of students, teachers, and staff is being threatened by high school and middle school students who bring weapons into school in some form of retaliation or infighting (regardless of prohibition of school entrances and campus grounds).[3],[4],[5] Because of this threat to student safety, this article will discuss the issue of school gun violence from a safety standpoint and will describe steps districts can take to address it.

Prevention and Protection in Schools

Prevention and protection in schools can be addressed with a professional Safe School Ambassador to coordinate the efforts of trained teachers and staff. The roles, responsibilities, and protocols of the Safe School Ambassador are outlined in our training. While the Safe School Ambassador is the key to the program, multiple efforts of trained individuals are needed. The Safe School Ambassador coordinates these efforts.

The steps of the Safe School Ambassador’s protocol, “Protecting Students,” are:

  • Building and maintaining a vibrant, healthy school climate
  • Recognizing any factors that may increase the risk of violence
  • Keeping the school safe
  • Implementing the plan and getting necessary resources to have the school protected
  • Continuing to improve the protection efforts

Getting Started with Identifying Vulnerabilities

In today’s world, it’s important for schools to understand where they are most vulnerable to acts of violence in order to reduce exposure to danger. Cereal bars in the cafeteria, a wing loaded with 3 rd graders, and the intercom system come to mind. These are areas where schools have likely experienced dangerous situations and given some thought to how they can reduce risk in those areas.

In this day and age, especially with all the news coming out about mass shootings and violence in school settings, school officials need to take a critical look at their school’s security vulnerabilities and create a plan to reduce the risk of injuries and deaths. The ability to identify and discuss your schools vulnerabilities will start the process of creating effective and safer schools.

What are some examples of vulnerabilities to school violence?

Athletic Events or Sporting Events Held at School

Availability of faculty, staff, and student information.

Each School Is Unique

It's true that each and every school community is unique and each will seek to address the issue of school safety in a way that is both appropriate for their circumstances and directly addresses their students and community. But, the sad fact remains that there are some schools where, no matter what action they take to increase school safety and mitigate the risk of a school shooting, it is still possible that their efforts could be for naught. They could find themselves in a terrible situation where loss of life is a real possibility.

In the event of such a school shooting, each community and each school will need time to grieve, re-group, and recover. And, more importantly, they will need to ensure that the people most affected by a school shooting (students, families, and school staff) are given the space, time, and support that they require in order to heal. All of this takes time. Healing is a long, slow process.

That being said, it is still important to prepare for the worst-case scenario. It's important that schools and towns take proactive measures to ensure that those who are impacted by a school shooting have access to the help they need. This is best achieved by identifying trusted resources that the community can turn to for help and then making those resources visible and easily accessible. Doing so will allay any fears those impacted by the tragedy may have and will help defuse excitement and hysteria that the event can no doubt inspire.

What Is Prevention?

Prevention means that schools, neighborhoods, communities, and individuals work together to stop violence from happening before it happens. It’s an ongoing process, because violence can be prevented only when you target the factors that bring it about. That may be a lack of opportunity for young people, stress at home, or gangs in school.

Some prevention strategies work to prevent violence, but only before it happens. These strategies apply to individuals, communities, or school settings and they target behaviors and thinking.

A common prevention strategy involves teaching justice-oriented values. For example, encouraging teens to notice warning signs of violence and to intervene with their peers. These strategies focus on changing people’s thinking and behavior to address problems before they become problems.

The Gun Violence Safety Team

The Gun Violence Safety Team (GVS Team) model provides communities with a grassroots way to address gun threats, gun accidents, mass shootings and gun violence. The model is a partnership between the community and the law enforcement and school police. The GVS Team is a network of people with a common purpose to create safer schools and communities.

The TSM (Threat-Seeker-Manager) model is the team’s proactive formula for when someone makes a threat. The Threat-Seeker is the individual who reports the threat to the law enforcement, school police, mental health or other mental health professional, counselor, administrator or other person designated by the school or community. The Team’s purpose is to seek out and prevent threats from being carried out, and to manage the threats when they occur. Informing appropriate school officials, mental health professionals, parents or other community members so they can report the threat to law enforcement is important.

Populations with Disabilities

and Other Needs

According to the U.S. Department of Education (1994), a person with a disability is one with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protect the rights of students with disabilities. Failure of schools to provide appropriate services is a violation of these laws. Students with disabilities are protected from over-identification, over-testation, over-institutionalization, and over-exclusion from school. Parents are responsible for ensuring that the student receives all services and aids that are required by law. Section 504/ADA does not guarantee a student with a disability will be placed in the "least restrictive environment." Students with disabilities may be excluded from general education classes if the disability will prevent the student from learning needed concepts or skills in a specific academic area.

Tip Hotlines

Schools should adopt a tip hotlines – such as‗ that anyone can call to report concern for a student they think is a threat.

Safety Drills

The Department of Homeland Security has identified incidents of school violence as among the highest priorities for emergency and crisis management response. A survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 46 percent of facilities reported conducting drills for active shooter incidents.

Each response to a violent incident, whether school shooting, community homicide, or terrorist attack, involves a clear set of concepts and actions that can be applied across multiple jurisdictions. DHS provides multiple resources that can help champion efforts to strengthen emergency management and control resources and develop plans and strategies for safety, preparedness, and response. Additionally, there are a number of plans, resources, and links to assist local schools in creating, practicing, and implementing appropriate methods for responding to an active shooter.

The following principles and tactics from the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) Emergency Support Function­- Emergency Preparedness (ESF-EP) have been synthesized by the Department based on the coordinating efforts of the HSOC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide guidelines specifically to law enforcement officials for response to active shooter events.

Lockdown, Shelter in Place, and Evacuate are the three phases of response to active shooter events. Regardless of the phase, the overarching principles apply: communicate, coordinate, engage, counter, and evacuate.

Your School Climate

As concerned citizens, parents and educators, it is time for a national approach for keeping our kids and schools safe. The first step in this effort is to let your elected officials know that you voted for them because they will take action.

· Use the attached list of Key Congressional Contacts to let us know how we can help you be a more effective advocate.

· Please be assertive. If necessary, call other Congressional offices. Let them know that you will vote to support candidates who take action. While you are at it, ask your state legislators to join you in this effort by >visiting the ACLU’s website>.

· Remind your representative and senator that the Second Amendment rights must be balanced with the safety of our children.

· Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper and an op-ed for your local paper.

Should Your School Arm Teachers?

The issue of arming teachers brings with it a number of challenges. First, the threat at hand is not often one that can be responded to over time. In a school, you may be able to monitor a person’s behavior for a period of time to ensure that the threat doesn’t escalate. We can plan for active shooting events, and design appropriate responses. The fact is that in subway shootings, ER shootings, and cafeteria shootings, the shooter often shows no indication of their eventual intent. The option of a potential shooter just dropping by for a visit, surprises many of us. Additionally, individuals who decide to commit a shooting are often deranged. In the Virginia Tech dorm massacres, Cho was not on the radar of the police, campus police, or the FBI—nor did he show up on campus as a problem student.

How Hometowns Can Keep Citizens and Students Safe from Gun Violence

Keeping a close eye on your children and keeping them safe is perhaps the most important thing for a parent. If you are unable to do it directly then you must find ways and means to ensure their safety. In the event of violent acts, it is important to know what to do, who to call, and how to be practical in dealing with the situation. It is not always easy to remain composed after a mass shooting, workplace violence or other violent act on school grounds. We will take examples of school violence and how small business can response through the following list of strategies and action items that can be implemented.

The Risk of Suicide with a Firearm

A thorough review of data about suicides in both the United States and developed nations indicates that using a firearm to commit suicide is highly effective, but it is also fatal. The risk of suicide with a firearm is far greater than any other method. When a firearm is used, the fatality rate is 70% compared to 10-20% for other methods.

Jumping into Action

In today’s world of social media, it can be hard to keep up with the latest news. When a shooting happens, the country watches in horror as it unfolds on the news, and our active shooter drills fade into the background. After the initial shock, many people start questioning what they’ve done wrong, looking for something to blame. Every time I hear of a shooting, I wonder why no one is doing anything to stop it. As a mental health professional and the volunteer president of my local school district’s anti-violence task force, I know firsthand that this tragedy repeats itself again and again. I’m also very frustrated by the false hope that the next shooting won’t happen at my or a student’s school.

I decided to take action by forming a small group of concerned parents and teachers who organized a pilot project. We launched an anti-violence task force that educates our community about the warning signs for violence, and gives people something they can do to help prevent the next problem. The task force provides citizens with education and resources. The community is actively involved and leads the way in creating a positive plan that works for them.

Research and Address

The majority of school violence, in recent years, has been caused by one or a combination of the following three factors: Mental illness, Juvenile criminal behavior and Domestic violence, also known as domestic disputes.

The majority of schools and hometowns are either in a crisis/crisis mode because one of these three types of issues is creating a direct risk to students and faculty, or they are dealing with the aftermath of an incident that has already taken place which has resulted in a school closure.

Address & Research the Causes to Reduce the Risks

If the root cause of the issue is either mental illness or juvenile criminal behavior, then address the root cause and create strategies to stop them from happening again. Researching violent behavior is a lucrative business that takes years of specialized work. These types of research projects should not be empty promises since it is too important an issue to be falsely handled.

{1}. Organizations with decades of experience in the field – The study of violent behavior, human psychology, and emotions are highly specialized. There is no way that all school and hometown leaders can conduct a reliable and thorough study on this. That's why it is a good idea to turn to experienced organizations who have fallen the subject for decades.
{2}. Work with faculty members – Faculty members are the experts at schools and hometowns. They have been the backbone of these institutions for years. Their experience and knowledge would be instrumental in successfully creating safety strategies.

Many Issues to Think About

As the school shooting in South Florida increases the anxiety of parents of school-age children, how would tackle issues surrounding threats and violence.

Would you consider having a "canes in class day" inspired by the "sensible shoes day" for gun responsible modeling? As a former elementary teacher, and former school counselor, I don't feel comprehensive psychosocial education would help prevent school violence.

What about arming teachers? Neither idea sounds realistic. Making a library, film classroom or lunchroom a "gun free zone" doesn't make sense. I can list many fail-proof reasons, but looks like I'm not alone.

What should we do? The First Amendment to the United States Constitution contains three portions, most relevant for this discussion being the right of freedom of speech.

Another provision of the First Amendment is the right to assemble.

And the Third is the right to petition the government peacefully, not that the people in power listen.

We know that the protests about gun violence organized by student walkouts are protected by the First Amendment. If a student was suspended for walking out of class to protest, that would most certainly be heard by a federal circuit court.

Additional Resources

In the wake of the Newtown school shootings, hundreds of schools across the country, horrified by a string of copycat threats, are grappling with how to address the problem. Many schools are reviewing policies, meeting with police departments, providing training for teachers, and holding assemblies. Emotions are running high. Everyone’s desire is to keep our children safe.

Is it possible to effectively prevent violence or threats of violence? While no one wants to take guns away from hunters or from law enforcement in the name of fighting violence, maybe there’s a middle ground. As a parent and teacher, I’m wondering if we should consider making some sensible gun controls, at least for civilians, in the name of safety. Not only for our children, but also for our neighbors and families in general.

What do you think?

Statistics show that about one-in-three Americans own a gun. That’s about 60 million guns. That’s a lot of guns.

Do you know who owns those guns? A lot of them are owned by people who don’t responsibly store them.