School Safety

Since the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999, education and public safety policy has emphasized situational crime prevention and law enforcement response in an effort to prevent shooting casualties. School security is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Yet, many of the alleged solutions to school shootings are expensive, dangerous, unproven, and incompatible with scientific evidence. In the 20 years since Columbine, school shootings have not decreased in frequency, and have, in fact, gotten deadlier.

More than rehearsing for when a shooting occurs, we need a shift in framework to focus on true prevention. Our mass violence research study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, lays the groundwork for evidence-based school shooting prevention. Here are our initial recommendations for policy and practice:

1. Break the childhood ritual of lockdown drills. While all adults (teachers, staff, administrators) should be trained and prepared for a potential shooting, children and young people should avoid these rehearsals because:

a. They are traumatic for students and increase anxiety.

b. Almost all school shooters are current or previous students at the school. Lockdown drills show potential perpetrators the school’s exact response, which can be used to increase casualties.

c. Running at least five lockdown drills per year (e.g., per the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act) means that by age 18, the average student has gone through 70 lockdown drills. This normalizes school shootings from a young age, and hands children a script for this type of violence. In vulnerable students, it could even trigger a fascination, contributing to a contagion effect.

2. Re-frame threats of school violence as a clear sign that a student is in crisis and needs help. Our study found that the majority of school shooters have numerous risk factors for violence, are suicidal prior to the shooting, and typically leak their plans ahead of time.

a. Threats of school violence should not be unduly punished or criminally charged. This only increases the likelihood of future violence by adding stress and exacerbating grievances with the school.

b. Threats of school violence open the door to intervention. Threats should be seen as a cry for help, possibly indicative of suicidality because most school shooters expect or intend to die in the act. Any threat, from bragging about violence to writing a hit list, is a critical moment for a student to be connected with needed resources.

c. The concept of "threat assessment" as developed by the U.S. Secret Service is instructive, but potentially blinds us to warning signs of a crisis that are not inherently or imminently threatening in the traditional sense. We need to expand the remit of threat assessment to comprehensive in-school "care teams" that emphasize safeguarding children and young people in a wraparound process.

3. Train all school personnel (teacher, administrator, staff member etc.) regularly in crisis intervention, de-escalation, and suicide prevention. Preferably, this should be high-quality, in person training. History shows us that many school shootings are stopped by adults who have a relationship with a student in crisis. Having a real connection with at least one adult in their lives may be the saving factor for a child. For this reason, all adults in the school should be able to recognize signs of a crisis, feel comfortable intervening, and know exactly how to connect students to resources.

4. Create an inclusive school environment anchored in social and emotional learning.

5. Teach media literacy to help inoculate children and young people from persuasion via extremist propaganda on social media.

6. Educate parents and families to keep guns at home secure. Family members were the source of firearms in 80% of school shootings in our study. Without the means to shoot, a tragedy can be avoided.

For more on these recommendations, see:

Peterson, J. & Densley, J. (2019, June 7). School shootings: What administrators need to know. Minnesota Association of School Administrators, The Leaders Forum.

Peterson, J. & Densley, J. (2018, Dec. 19). Editorial counterpoint: preventing mass school shootings? Here's a key first step. Star Tribune.

Peterson, J. & Densley, J. (2018, Feb. 16). Why the usual approach to school security isn't working. CNN.