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Section 12
Critical Lessons to Prevent School Shootings

Question 12 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed the last two elements of the five factor model proposed for the origin of rampage school shootings.  These last two elements are the failure of surveillance systems which are supposed to identify troubled teens, and gun availability.  We also discussed a technique for risk assessment.

In this section, we will discuss four steps that can be used to help prevent school shootings.  These four steps are adjusting the radar, school resource officers, leavening social capital and tweaking adolescent culture, and a zero tolerance policy.

4 Steps in Prevention

♦ Step # 1 - Adjusting the Radar
A first step in preventing school shootings is adjusting the school’s radar to better identify troubled students who are not major disciplinary problems. As mentioned in Section 4, one factor that contributes to rampage shootings is the lack of consolidated information about minor disciplinary problems. For this reason, one aspect of adjusting the radar is to maintain academic, counseling, and disciplinary records across bureaucratic boundaries within a school district. This however is a challenge to school and local policy more than an easily enacted step.

One concern I often hear is that if teachers are privy to this information, they may expect poor behavior from their students, and at what point is the student’s confidentiality boundary crossed? One way to address this and address the ethical right of students to privacy is to keep this information in the area of counselors and administrators, only informing teachers when a pattern emerges that warrants the extra vigilance that can be offered by teachers.

In regards to sharing of information among teachers, I recommend that schools adopt a team model of overseeing individual students and evaluating their progress. In these sessions, students’ behavioral adjustment can be discussed along with academic achievement. This is clearly not to advocate a culture of gossip, but to encourage teachers to observe maladaptive behavioral patterns as a community.

♦ Step # 2 - School Resource Officers
A second step in preventing school shootings is the use of school resource officers. As you know, school resource officers are trained law enforcement officials who add additional trained eyes and ears to the school radar. These officers, independent of the school system, spend almost all of their time on school grounds.  Although they carry all of the equipment and arms of a traditional police officer, they wear "softer" uniforms to better blend in. Both Heath and Westside High Schools have employed SROs, school resource officers, since the shootings, and have experienced a great deal of success as a result.

These SROs not only add sensitivity to the radar, they also have as a primary duty of increasing communication with students. Unlike teachers, who establish a position of authority over students, an SRO has as a priority developing bonds of trust with students. An SRO actively seeks to befriend students, and may hang out in social groups during school lunches, for example. Clearly, establishing this friendly face gives students an adult perceived as a safe and trustworthy confidant.  This puts SROs in a better position than other staff to intercept threats made by potential shooters.

SROs have had much success.  In 2003, a student tipped off an SRO south of Seattle that a classmate had brought a loaded Mac 10 machine gun to school.  The SRO was able to safely apprehend both student and weapon. An added value of SROs is that these individuals can work with counseling staff to identify students who need additional attention and supervision. 

There are two difficulties with SROs however:
1. First, many schools lack the resources needed to hire trained resource officers. 
2. Second, SROs report to local law enforcement, not the school.  Students who may have merely had a fight added to their disciplinary record may wind up with an arrest record instead.

♦ Step # 3 - Leavening Social Capital & Tweaking Culture
In addition to adjusting the radar and the use of school resource officers, a third step than can be used in preventing school shootings is leavening social capital and tweaking adolescent culture.  One aspect of this is actively recruiting teachers who prevent an alternate model of masculinity and strength. These teachers can create social space that students need to be different. As you know, ideally every student can benefit from a teacher to whom he or she relates.

An additional aspect of this is one that requires whole community intervention, and that is reducing, or at least spreading, the attention focused on sports. While the community spirit involved in school supports is positive and healthy, the "star factor" is strongly negative. Would you agree? One guideline I strongly emphasize is the immediate removal from positions of authority any individual who looks the other way when athletes bully or tease smaller, or unathletic students. No matter how talented, no school athlete should be exempt from treating his or her peers with respect. 

Incidents of bullying should be grounds for forfeiting the privilege of representing one’s school in athletic competition.  In addition, schools actively could solicit in the community for funding for programs outside of the athletic program.

For example, the local Chamber of Commerce could be asked to sponsor awards for students with high achievement in math, engineering, or the creative arts.  Some schools have begun giving varsity letters for chess or science teams. I remind school staff that kids pay attention to what the community values and rewards.  If only sports teams have the support and reward, a greater percentage of the student body feels marginalized. 

♦ Step # 4 - Zero Tolerance Policy
A fourth step that can be used to prevent school shootings is the use of a zero tolerance policy.  As you know, zero tolerance policies for weapons at school have become the norm, and while some students may not feel the authoritarian culture of this surveillance positive, these policies have been proven  to reduce an atmosphere of fear. Of course, zero tolerance policies regarding speech are much more difficult. Taking disciplinary action against every student who tells another "I’m gonna get you," when this is merely a common phrase uttered daily by millions of youth without negative intent, is not a clear cut issue. 

A punitive approach to language may be counterproductive, limiting communication between students and school staff.  On the whole, zero tolerance policies tend to be too inflexible; However schools should have the authority to take disciplinary problems seriously, and threats should be investigated and if necessary, punished accordingly.  It is the ability to make nuanced judgments, thus ensuring student trust and ongoing communication, that is more important than a rigid policy.  Would you agree?

In this section, we have discussed four steps that can be used to help prevent school shootings.  These four steps are adjusting the radar, school resource officers, leavening social capital and tweaking adolescent culture, and a zero tolerance policy.

In the next section, we will discuss four steps that can help encourage students to come forward about threats.  These four steps are ensure confidentiality, direct contact between parents and teachers, educational films, and decisive action.

Disaster Technical Assistance Center Supplemental Research Bulletin
Mass Violence and Behavioral Health

- SAMHSA. Disaster Technical Assistance Center Supplemental Research Bulletin
Mass Violence and Behavioral Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2017.
Reviewed 2023

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Goodrum, S., Thompson, A. J., Ward, K. C., & Woodward, W. (2018). A case study on threat assessment: Learning critical lessons to prevent school violence. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 5(3), 121–136.

Markey, P. M., Ivory, J. D., Slotter, E. B., Oliver, M. B., & Maglalang, O. (2019). He does not look like video games made him do it: Racial stereotypes and school shootings. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication.

Raitanen, J., & Oksanen, A. (2019). Deep interest in school shootings and online radicalization. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 6(3-4), 159–172.

What are four steps than can be used to help prevent school shootings?
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Section 13
Table of Contents