Rise of School Shootings

School shootings have been on the rise and are more prevalent than ever before. “In less than 18 years, we have already seen more deaths related to school shootings than in the whole 20th century. One alarming trend is that the overwhelming majority of 21st-century shooters were adolescents, suggesting that it is now easier for them to access guns, and that they more frequently suffer from mental health issues or limited conflict resolution skills,”. (Katsiyannis et al., 2018) This leaves us wondering, why did they shoot, could they have been stopped, and what can we do to prevent future shootings? We are not working effectively if we only respond to violence reactively, we must take a proactive stance to combat violence in our schools.

A school shooting is an attack at an educational institution, such as a school or university, involving the use of a firearm(s). (Vossekuil et al., 2004) School shootings in America date all the way back to the 1840s, John A. G. Davis, a law professor at the University of Virginia was shot and killed by a student. (Haggard and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, 2016)  In 1999, 2 students at Columbine High School killed 12 students and 1 teacher before committing suicide. (Cullen, 2010). In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 students and faculty members before committing suicide. (Webber, 2017) In 2012, Adam Lanza killed 26 people and himself, 20 of those killed were 1st graders at Sandy Hook Elementary. (Finley, 2014) In 2018, a former student shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Falkowski & Garner, 2018) These are just a few of the multitudes of shootings that have occured on school campuses in America over the years.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 75% of shootings were motivated by bullying/persecution/threatened, 34% were in attempt to solve a problem and 27% were motivated by suicide or desperation. They also report statistics on the attackers, 95% of attackers were current students, 93% of attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the attack that caused others to be concerned and 68% acquired the weapon used from their own home or that of a relative. School shootings have sparked a debate over gun violence, zero tolerance policies and gun control. CNN has reported that the US has had 57 times as many school shootings as the other major industrialized nations combined, an average of 1 a week in 2018 alone. There have been at least 288 school shootings since January 1, 2009. This alarming rate causes us to take a closer look at what makes school shootings such an issue in America. According to research, shooting massacres in English-speaking countries occur closer together in time. (Towers et al., 2015)

The results from a study done by the Department of Education notes that, when profiling the perpetrators, it is important to note that making a singular profile is difficult because they came from varying backgrounds. Family dysfunction is an important factor of school shootings among social scientists. Harvard sociologist, Robert J. Sampson wrote, “Family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictor of variations in urban violence across cities in the U.S.A.” Social scientist Bradford Wilcox also observed nearly all “involved a young man whose parents divorced or never married in the first place.” School bullying is common in schools and also seems to play a role in the lives of many of the school shooters. (Lanata, 2003) 75% of school shooters had been bullied or left behind evidence of having been victims of bullying. (Oliver, 2015)

According to the Washington post, school shootings are considered to be “uniquely an American crisis” due to the availability in firearms in the United States. The Washington post also reports that the United States Federal Government does not track school shootings and that addressing school shootings have been difficult since the passage of the Dickey Amendment in 1996, which mandated that no Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funds “may be used to advocate or promote gun control” which halted almost all study of gun violence. In 2013, President Barack Obama directed the CDC to research gun violence. While the Amendment still remains, a report accompanying the Omnibus spending bill clarifies that the CDC can conduct research into gun violence, it was signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018. But public health experts and former CDC officials say that, unless Congress actually appropriates money for that research, no progress will be made. (Weixel, 2018)

One solution that has been suggested at a federal and state level is stricter gun laws, these laws have sparked debate from both parties on what laws should actually be passed. The Red flag law – also known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) or Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs) – enable law enforcement, and sometimes family members and other concerned parties, to petition a judge to remove guns from individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others. 13 States have enacted the Red Flag law; California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida,Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Several other states have proposed the same law but failed. (Campbell & Yablon, 2018)

The Times reports that in 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the STOP School Violence Act, the bill reauthorizes a Justice Department program focused on stopping school threats. It provides $50 million per year to: create and operate an “anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence, including mobile telephone applications, hotlines, and internet websites”, implement improvements to school security infrastructure, develop student, teacher and law enforcement training to prevent violence. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who voted for the bill, said in a statement that, “It should be unacceptable to all of us that we must take steps to train staff and students to protect themselves against these types of incidents, instead of spending more money on actually educating our young people”.

So what can we do at a school level to educate our students and keep our students safe? Schools can implement different schoolwide programs and tiered interventions to combat and prevent school violence. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2 of the highest motivators for school shootings are bullying and attempts to solve a problem. At a school level we can implement a different curriculums to combat those 2 issues. Research shows that social skills are commonly lacking in people prone to violent and aggressive behavior, including poor impulse control, problem-solving, and anger management (Committee for Children, 1997, p.1). Victims and bystanders of aggressive and angry students often lack assertive communications skills, as well (Marano, 1995). Conflict Resolution and Peer Mediation (CRPM) program research shows that programs which address these issues not only reduce aggression and violence in communities and their schools, but also provide “life-long decision making skills” (U.S. Dept. of Justice, 1997, p. 55), and enhance the self-esteem of students.

These programs are student centered and can reduce teacher stress and increase instruction time. Such programs also give students multiple opportunities to be responsible for their own actions at a critical developmental period. Through conflict resolution training, students can better understand the dynamics of conflict and become better equipped to deal constructively with interpersonal conflicts, and use appropriate skills in handling their shared problems (Burrell, Zirbell, Allen, 2003). According to Stevahn and Johnson (1997) students learn to negotiate constructive resolutions to their conflicts through conflict-resolution training. They define negotiation as a process by which people who have both shared and opposed interests and wish to come to an agreement attempt to work out a settlement.

Although students are naturally socialized through conflicts and interpersonal exchange, without a CRPM program in place, many school-aged students develop ineffective and destructive conflict resolution strategies. (Johnson & Johnson, 1994)  In addition, Johnson et. al. (1992) also claim that most students are not equipped with skills or knowledge about how to resolve conflicts or how to manage their feelings in conflict situations, and mismanagement of interpersonal conflicts usually results in violence. Because some children believe that physical force is the way to resolve conflicts, and others use such procedures as verbal attack, the cold shoulder, giving in, getting even, or responding in kind. This general lack of knowledge and skills is problematic for the quality of school life and forecasts future adult problems (Johnson & Johnson, 1994). Managing conflicts constructively is one of the most important competencies that children, adolescents, and young adults need to master as part of their schooling (Stevahn Johnson, Johnson & Schultz 1997).

Jones (2004), supports this view and reports that exposure to CRPM reduces personal conflict and increases the tendency to help others with their conflicts, decreases aggressiveness, increases prosocial values, and increases perspective taking and conflict resolution competence. There are various research studies on the effectiveness of CRPM training programs that exist worldwide (Savage & Rehfuss, 2007; Smith et. al., 2002; Johnson & Johnson, 2001; Bell et. al., 2000; Johnson & Johnson, 1996, a;). A cumulative result in these studies was that 90-100% of the conflicts brought to peer mediators resulted in agreements accepted by both parties. A meta-analysis of peer mediation studies by Burrell, Zirbell, and Allen (2003) reveals that 93% of conflicts ended in agreement, which shows the success of mediation programs in the schools. The majority of the above studies report positive findings about the effects of peer mediation on student violence from western cultures.

School based programs aimed to reduce bullying have also shown effectiveness in reducing bullying among school aged children. Bullying is a subtype of aggressive behavior characterized by the intent to harm, repetition of attacks, and abuse of power over a weaker victim. (Olweus 1991) Bullying can also be indirect in the form of exclusion or gossip. (Crick and Bigbee 1998), cyber bullying can also occur by means such as email, cellular phones or social media. (Patchin & Hinduja 2006). Children who are victimized tend to display internalizing symptoms, including depression, anxiety, lower self-esteem, or social withdrawal (Nansel et al. 2001). Children who bully others are more susceptible to future problems of violence and delinquency. One study showed that adolescents who bullied others tended to view their partners as less equitable and reported higher rates of aggression in those relationships than non-bullies (Connolly et al. 2000).

Integrating bullying prevention into schoolwide positive behavioral intervention support (SWPBIS) has shown to be an effective way to combat school violence and aggression.  SWPBIS is an alternative to the zero-tolerance policy, the zero-tolerance policy uses automatic expulsion to combat bullying but has not been proven to be effective. (Boccanfuso at al., 2011) Through direct instruction, positive reinforcement, and consistent consequences, SWPBIS teaches behavioral expectations and promotes acceptable social and classroom behaviors. A study done by Wassdorp et al. (2012) showed a significant interaction emerged between grade level of first exposure to SWPBIS and intervention status, suggesting that the effects of SWPBIS on rejection were strongest among children who were first exposed to SWPBIS at a younger age. The results indicated that SWPBIS has a significant effect on teachers’ reports of children’s involvement in bullying as victims and perpetrators.

Another factor that we should be focusing on is the mental health of our students. The general lack of knowledge surrounding mental health puts our youth a greater risk of threats like school shootings. A survey of 9,000 homes revealed that about 50% of all Americans will meet some sort of diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder at some point in their lifetime, with the age of onset typically occurring during childhood or adolescence (Kessler et al., 2005). Schools are not clinical settings and therefore, are not authorized to provide treatment services, however there are other services that school counselors/psychologists can provide. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to provide special education placement and related services to students who are eligible.

Under IDEA, emotional disturbance is condition in which a child exhibits one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance: an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors, an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers, inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances, a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression, and a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems (2004).

School-based mental health promotion programs have been implemented using different approaches. Indicated programs are implemented to help children who are already manifesting signs of mental health problems, targeted programs aim to improve the mental health of children at increased risk of mental health problems, and universal programs aim to improve the mental health of the whole population of children. (Wells et al., 2003) School counselors/psychologist can also facilitate individual or group counseling to address bullying, grief and loss, anger management, depression, poor problem-solving skills and low self-esteem, which a high percentage of perpetrators have struggled with. The goal is to provide students with the tools that they need to deal with their emotions in a more constructive manner (Vossekuil et al, 2002). Counseling can teach students to avoid internalizing their negative emotions and pain,which can later manifest in projecting and externalizing their inner conflict in an aggressive manner (Miller, 2014).

The statistics on the significant increase of gun violence within the school setting is staggering and alarming. Essentially, schools were created to be safe havens for students and staff, a place where everyone can feel protected and work in an environment that encourages learning. When acts of violence are committed, including school shootings, trust and security are compromised, leaving staff and students feeling traumatized and defeated. It is evident that school violence is progressing problem in America and that no one person or strategy can fix this issue, rather, it is a collective of adults advocating on the behalf of our youth to create new laws and implement a variety of interventions in and out of the school setting. It is not sufficient enough for us to take action after a tragedy has taken place, we need to be proactive about solutions to mitigate these acts of violence.

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