THE BLOG

A Framework for Understanding Lethal School Violence: Part 1

03/25/2015 03:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015
Stella

The subject of lethal school violence is broad, including: firearm deaths along with other assaults, stabbings, suffocations, poisonings and so forth. It is a very difficult subject to talk or write about. Yet, we so greatly need a healthy national dialogue about lethal school violence, and especially lethal gun violence, because such a dialogue plays a role in collaboratively creating and sharpening tools of prevention.

The purpose of this two-part article is to deepen the national dialogue on lethal school violence prevention and underscore some initial lessons that can come from it.

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Many of those reading can remember exactly where they were during one or more --even several (or many) -- incidents of lethal school violence. These events erode at the core of safety we cherish for education. They also remind of bygone times that lacked such a public attention and scrutiny to every instance of violence in schools.

President Barack H. Obama wisely said at the Sandy Hook Prayer Vigil, just two days after that tragedy had occurred that in order to deal with lethal school violence we will all need to change. But what does that change look like? Are we changing enough by reeling every time new tragedies occur? Is there a substantial sense of urgency for national-level change? Also, is there a single process that schools could engage in that would be instructive, preventive, and restorative?

The short answer is that not enough is being done. More, the solutions to lethal school violence are the sum of many parts.

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As of March 2015, there have been in upwards of 88 fatal school shootings since the time of Columbine. This number is drawn by focusing on published lists of school shootings, triangulated from Lieberman (School Shootings, 2008), Van Brunt (Ending Campus Violence, 2012) and Doll (Ending School Shootings, manuscript). However, not every adverse event is printed, and so the correct number is no doubt significantly higher.

* A fatal school shooting is defined in alignment with the Digest of Education Statistics, 2014 as occurring on or en route to/from school grounds and involving at least one fatality.

Lethal gun violence is different than most other forms of deadly force. Gun violence is the one type of violence that can be committed at scale and at times to anonymous, innocent victims.The other forms (including assaults, poisonings, stabbings and suffocations, etc.) are by example more focused on targeted individuals or much smaller groups, with the exception to the rampage stabbing occurring in Murrysville, Pennsylvania in 2014.

The most recent fatal school shooting occurred at the University of South Carolina on February 5, 2015. It was an instance of domestic betrayal that turned to tragedy. The perpetrator was a female, which is rare. Usually, or actually almost always, the guilty party is a male.

All in all, any attempt at lethal school violence is held with reproach. And one death is always (and will always be) one too many. Worse yet, for those who survive or are family or peers, the pain of any future incident of school violence is always multiplied. This unfeeling, uncaring reality should serve to inspire those of us in this dialogue towards a greater sense of care.

Having the Right Data -- And Where to Get it

The National Center for Education Statistics keeps a detailed account of incidents of lethal school violence. It is drawn from law enforcement and includes non-firearm homicides (i.e. assaults, poisonings, suffocation and stabbings) as well. As such, NCES data highlights 492 homicides and suicides occurring in schools or en route to/from schools from the 1999/2000 school year to the 2010/2011 school year.

In addition, at least 96 school shooting fatalities occurred since the Spring 2011 NCES data window, not to mention all other forms of lethal violence during that time period. So the numbers are definitely higher the 88 fatal events mentioned previously.

It is critical to bear in mind that lethal school violence seldom occurs completely unannounced in a perpetrator's life, but rather often has a lengthy runway leading up to them -- of weeks or even more than a year. The criminologists, Jack Levin and Eric Madfis (2009) call this the planning stage according to their Cumulative Strain Theory.

No doubt, we need the correct data in order to properly understand this problem of lethal school violence and how to best support students in prevention. Districts and schools also need to be extremely well-versed in their own local-level data.

Data Questions for a Framework of Lethal School Violence Prevention

(1) For all schools -- Does your school/district have in place a systematic program to make sure each student is connected to positive mentoring relationships with at least one adult?
(2) For larger schools, districts -- Does your school/district have referral, bullying and other disengagement data disaggregated by date/time to allow analysis of trends and targeted prevention/training?
(3) For smaller schools, districts -- Does your school/district have deeper knowledge of every student's family/guardian situation and/or peer relationships as these relate to each student's emotional state and the school's awareness/sensitivity?

Schools are Safer -- Still, Behavioral Interventions should be Tailored for Each Student

The established conclusion from NCES data is that schools are safer than in the past and that homicides/suicides in schools have gone down dramatically since the early-1990s. For example, there were 40 fatal school incidents involving students ages 5-18 in 1992/1993 compared with only 14 in the 2010/2011 school year, or less than half the original rate. Similar conclusions have been well-documented in prominent school violence scholarship (Peter Langman, 2015, Jared and Donna Scherz, 2014, Dewey Cornell, 2014, and R. Murray Thomas, 2006). The rate of decrease since the time of Columbine was less dramatic, however, with 20 percent of schools in 1999/2000 reporting a serious violent crime compared with 16 percent in 2009/2000.

In any case, not a single parent whose child was injured or worse could agree that schools are safe -- because it was not true for them. Thus, relative safety does not decrease the need for prevention in any way. Actually, it's just the opposite -- the work of prevention is never completed because new students and more diverse circumstances keep appearing on the horizon.

Also, as schools and districts develop and adapt their own responsive systems, programs like bullying prevention can be strengthened through the strategic use of data -- but the key ingredient to student safety is still relationships.

Thus, for a school or district to be lauded for its safety record, they should be asking about the quality of their relationships with all of their students. Are their tears in the fabric of relationships? Are there places where threatening behavior is tolerated? Is punishment viewed as the only successful way of working with specific students or types of behaviors -- and if so, what does the end-game look like for those students and their targeted behaviors?

Safety Questions for a Framework of Prevention

(4) For all schools -- With students who engage in more serious offenses (larger than a single days' referral/punishment), does your school utilize a strengths-based approach with students, or a similar program like restorative justice, to help correct deeper life issues in positive ways?
(5) For larger schools, districts -- Have you mapped out what would happen from start to finish if a student exhibited moderately large, destructive behaviors and how you would help get them back on track? Is there a potential pathway back through reconciliation?
(6) For smaller schools, districts -- With each student, are staff members routinely applying a strength-based approach to tap on gifts and creativity and potentially avert future problems?

Part two of this article, which is coming, will focus on some adaptive prevention techniques and places for greater emphasis. This will complete the Framework for Lethal School Violence Prevention.

Stay tuned for Part 2...