Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How History and Research Can Better Protect Children from School Shootings

Too often, our policy responses are guided by fear rather than evidence.

Uvalde school shooting memorial
A memorial for the 19 children and two adults who were killed on May 24 at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
(Lola Gomez/Dallas Morning News/TNS)
The last decade of school shootings has made one thing clear: Sound policymaking is difficult in the aftermath of such a tragedy. Our natural instinct to protect children by any means possible is strongest in the days and weeks following a school shooting, but this instinct is almost always accompanied by overwhelming fear.

Calls to arm teachers and increase school policing in the aftermath of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting illustrate the dangers of allowing fear to drive policymaking. These proposals both pose risks to students and lack evidence that they reduce school violence. As we approach the six-month anniversary of Uvalde, we urge public officials to do their utmost now to pursue research-based solutions that are more likely to keep schools safe.

History as well as research must guide this work. In deferring to past lessons learned, we give ourselves a chance to enact solutions that can safeguard our children and educators. Otherwise, public officials not only risk failing to stop school shootings but may introduce hazards to school campuses that compromise student safety. Specifically, we recommend that public officials:

Review past school shootings to understand both the causes of violence and the protective factors that might prevent deaths and injuries. The American School Shooting Study is an open source database of K-12 school shootings in the United States from 1990 to 2016 that resulted in at least one injury. Researchers have analyzed this database to better understand the frequency of school shootings, where they occur, who commits them and other patterns. The research team found that, perhaps contrary to our perceptions, deadly school shootings are not steadily increasing. The authors also found that school shooters often tell others about their violent intentions beforehand, although these warnings are rarely taken seriously.

Understand how state school safety legislation has evolved since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting to expand student support strategies. A Child Trends analysis found that, in the year following major school shooting incidents, most laws passed by state legislatures focused largely on hardening strategies, such as school-based law enforcement, physical security, threat assessment and active-shooter drills. Furthermore, while many state laws now recommend or require student-support strategies, such as social-emotional learning and multi-tiered systems of support, states generally do not enact these laws immediately following school shooting incidents. Gradually, though, over the last two decades, state school safety legislation has featured an increasing share of student-support strategies focused on mental health and school climate.

Learn the consequences for educational settings when fear shapes school safety policy. Qualitative research illustrates the dangers of policymaking guided by fear rather than history and research. The public’s perception of school shootings as an imminent threat can incite fears that drive communities toward hypervigilance and an eagerness to do anything to minimize risks to students. This fear helps communities justify policies that criminalize students for minor disciplinary infractions — behaviors very different from a school shooting. Punitive responses to student behavior disproportionately target students of color and students with disabilities. Fear also leads communities to advocate for highly visible security measures while overlooking the value of evidence-based — but less visible — student-support strategies.

Re-examine school shootings as part of the broader challenge of firearm deaths, not solely as school-based violence. Firearms are now the leading cause of death for children from birth to age 18, according to research based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. While the overall rate of deaths for children is down markedly — 25 percent — over the past 20 years, the rate of death by firearms has gone in the opposite direction, increasing by 29 percent. In 2020, firearms accounted for 11 percent of all child deaths and nearly 30 percent of deaths to 15- to 19-year-olds, the vast majority of which occurred outside of school; during the 2015-2016 school year, just 1.1 percent of homicides of children ages 5-18 occurred at school. Reversing these trends will require a comprehensive policy approach that encompasses facets of the community beyond schools: gun access, economic and family stability, and broader inequities within society.

The research offered here can ground public officials in what’s currently known about school shootings and how deaths may be prevented, as well as the difficulties and dangers of pursuing policy changes amid heightened fears about the next school shooting. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed this summer in response to the Uvalde shootings, is illustrative of these challenges: While it provides critical investments in student mental health and new safeguards restricting firearm access, it also follows trends in state laws with a disproportionate focus on school hardening and security. Aided by history and research, federal, state and local officials can advance safe schools policymaking that more effectively safeguards children and schools.

Kristen Harper is vice president for public policy and engagement at Child Trends, a nonpartisan research organization focused on improving the lives of children and youth, especially those who live in poverty or who experience the effects of historical and current racial injustice. She is a school health and safety expert who has delivered congressional testimony on school environments and authored regulations for the U.S. Department of Education.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
From Our Partners