The news that a gunman killed 19 students and 2 teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas is bringing new attention to the question of school safety.
A presciently scheduled May 13 session of a virtual conference on school safety organized by the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance was titled “What can be done about school shootings?”
Panelist Katherine Newman, author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, noted that “rampage school shootings are a subset of gun violence on school campuses. They are not the whole story by any means. And in fact, they are different in some striking respects from background violence in cities and even on school campuses.”
“Rampage school shootings, at least at the point we were studying them, tend to take place in communities high on social capital, very high on social capital,” said Newman, who is also system chancellor for academic programs at the University of Massachusetts. She asked, “how do we make it easier for people who hear troubling information to come forward and for that information to be properly investigated? Because there was a lot of information circulating. There generally is. And the best hope for interdicting school rampage shootings is making it possible for that information to be acted on.”
Peter Langman, a researcher with the United States Secret Service and author of the books School Shooters and Why Kids Kill, said installing metal detectors at school entryways was no solution.
“My concern is if schools are putting a lot of time and effort into what’s called target hardening, making it harder for intruders to get in or for a gun to get in, they may not be doing threat assessment. They may think they’ve handled the problem. And what a lot of people forget is many school shootings have been wholly or partly outside,” he said.
Said Langman, “If you’re not tapping into what your students know with anonymous tip line, if you’re not getting the information you need to stay on top of safety issues, hardening the target is not going to keep people safe.”
A May 13 panel of a virtual conference on school safety organized by the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance was titled “What can be done about school shootings?”
A third panelist, Dewey Cornell, a professor at the University of Virginia, agreed. “We’re spending far too much on security measures and not enough on school counselors, approaches that create a softer, more welcoming environment in our schools, not a harder one. And the research bears it out. That the schools with the target hardening measures are not statistically safer and the students and teachers don’t feel safer either.”
In May of 2019, I reported from New Hampshire for Education Next that, “School shootings are shaping up as a big issue on the Democratic campaign trail.”
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who were then rival candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, were both emphasizing the issue. “I’m the only guy ever, nationally, to beat the NRA,” Biden said while campaigning in Nashua, N.H. “Look, the Second Amendment exists, but it doesn’t say you can own any weapon you want,” Biden said. “If you own a gun, put a damn trigger lock on it. Put it in a case.”
In May 2019, Biden called the gun issue his “single biggest priority in terms of dealing with the concerns of young people right now.”
Talking to reporters after the event, Biden said he was open to a “federal gun licensing system” or weapons that required their owner’s fingerprint to unlock. He said the biggest political obstacle to gun control law wasn’t gun owners or the National Rifle Assocation but “gun manufacturers. That’s where the money is.”
Also in May 2019, Harris said as president, she’d give Congress 100 days to act, but if it didn’t she’d take executive action to “ban the import of assault weapons into our country.”
An article in the Spring 2019 issue of Education Next (“Protecting Students from Gun Violence”), said that “target hardening” actions might contribute to student anxiety. “Some students might feel safer and calmer in hardened environments, but it is equally plausible that intensive security procedures send the message that schools are unsafe, fearful places, thus adding an element of stress to the learning environment,” the article said.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.
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