Setting the Stage for a National Dialogue On School Shooting Prevention

The need for a cohesive, consistent national dialogue on school shooting prevention is, at times, palpable. Now that the school season has begun, this disturbing topic in America's schools is seldom far from discussions on school safety.
09/29/2014 04:13 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

The need for a cohesive, consistent national dialogue on school shooting prevention is, at times, palpable. Now that the school season has begun, this disturbing topic in America's schools is seldom far from discussions on school safety. The report released by the FBI this week confirms that the incidence of mass shootings has been on the rise over the last decade, in workplaces and schools -- and this underscores our need for prevention. With that in mind, a more effective national dialogue on prevention could help to bring about lasting change, but may need a spark from the present time.

In fact, there have been many such sparks. In the decade from 2000-2010, there were four major school shootings where five or more people were killed at or in connection with schools (Red Lake, MN, Nickel Mines, PA, Blacksburg, VA and DeKalb, IL). Similarly, from 2010 to the present, there have also been four major school shootings (Oakland, CA, Newtown, CT, Santa Monica, CA and Isla Vista, CA) -- and we have more than five years yet to go in this decade! Indeed, those eight shootings represent no less than 100 deaths in America which together, and are crying out for an answer to this problem. There have also been a significant number of smaller fatal school shootings and dozens of non-fatal ones.

Defining enemies and allies is as much a part of the military as it is now a school safety regimen. The FBI Threat Assessment manual by Mary Ellen O'Toole can help beforehand by showing the characteristics of students who are at risk of committing a tragic event. Also, active shooter responses have been greatly improving over time, both by heroism and design. Certainly schools have held bus safety drills and fire drills for decades, let's remember one thing: Not until the present time are active shooter drills being needed to arm ourselves against the enemy within our schools.

There are plenty of examples of effective prevention once a tragic event has begun. For example, the school shootings at Chardon High School (2012) and Arapahoe High School (2013) each strongly benefited by an intentional, organized response that limited the number of fatalities which resulted. In spite of these quick, effective responses, though, perhaps we should be asking how to contain the anger within some students inasmuch as we respond intentionally when tragedy occurs.

Still, maybe the answer to this problem is not as far off as we think it is. About 75 percent of those who commit major school shootings are victims of bullying. And so bullying prevention on a large scale is a part of the solution. Also, 61 percent are motivated by a desire for revenge. Along these lines, many school shooters face what may be a consequence prior to a school shooting, or what researchers Eric Madfis and Jack Levin call a catastrophic event that propels them to the planning stages before a school shooting. With this in mind, schools should be reinvestigating their zero-tolerance policies across the board, because these create more consequences for students than benefits. But most of all, students need more authentic, holistic relationships with adults who care for them. Along these lines, the presence of caring relationships can take the sting off of bullying events or equally from other troubling circumstances a young person is facing.

Since the time of Columbine, 83 fatal shootings have occurred in schools (For list see Endingschoolshootings.org), yet only three of them have been by women. As a result, we should much more seriously investigate the relationship between gender and school shootings, and why girls are more apt to develop coping skills in life than their peers across the classroom. There is a path forward in training boys to be better adults, and it only comes by us listening.

America is a culture that is on the move and we often let competition be the impetus that pushes people forward. A quick glance at our prime time media shows that our media cherishes contests with winners and losers. But the truth is that if we don't send the message to every young man in America that he can be a winner regardless of how life is unfolding, we set up an economy where more winners win and more losers lose. And that same message to young women should be underscored even more.

It is a compounded tragedy every time a school shooting occurs. Often, a distressed young person has a myopic view of how they think life is going and decides to commit an unchangeable, violent act. It is a tragedy first and foremost for all who will be harmed as a result of this terrible act. But secondly, if the shooter survives, then the pain from before a shooting is only added to the pain after, and we as a society suffer from both circumstances.

What could really help are schools with relationship officers in the ranks, armed only with compassion and the skills to build relationships with distressed students. With training, these school personnel could be poised to encounter the aspects of the modern social world that the other academic staff members are not as able to focus on. Let's put well-reasoned research around this, too, and test how effective such an intervention could actually be in reducing bullying and promoting a more sensitive school culture. It is a potential solution with challenges, no doubt, but which could provide hope for many young people today and lead us on the pathway toward preventing school shootings before they occur.

As we engage in this national dialogue on school shooting prevention, and by finding and testing credible solutions to the school shooting epidemic in America, we can start to tame the enemy that has been able to dig in its heels over time. In this way, we will provide an answer that many of us are committed to seek out.