School Shootings Are Best Prevented By School Culture…And A More Responsible Firearms Culture

On the morning of Monday, January 29th 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer began shooting her rifle at students waiting to enter Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego. She ultimately killed the school’s principal, a custodian, and wounded eight children and a police officer. She then barricaded herself in her home. When a reporter reached her on the phone during the standoff and asked her why she’d done it she responded, “I don’t like Mondays, this livens up the day.”  That remark spawned the Bob Geldof and Johnnie Fingers Boomtown Rats classic “I don’t like Mondays.”

It was, of course, more than that. Spencer, who remains incarcerated, had a deeply troubled home life. She may have also had an untreated brain injury from a bicycle accident. And she had suicidal ideation and other mental health problems and made remarks indicating a desire to commit violence against others. She had also previously shot out the windows at Cleveland Elementary, among other targets, with her bb gun. How did her parents respond? Her dad bought her a rifle.

Yesterday, a student in Michigan killed three [updated] four and wounded eight at the high school where he was a sophomore. Details are scant and evolving but we do know the school had twice told parents, on November 4th and November 11th, that threats of violence were not something to be alarmed about (we don’t know yet if or how those issues are connected to yesterday’s shooting and I don’t mention that to second guess school officials, it’s too soon to know why this happened).

Obviously, we do know that this is an unimaginable tragedy. Parents send their kids off to school in the morning expecting them home later in the day. That, even more than reading or math, is the core function of schools – keeping young people safe. It’s a sacred responsibility. Yet because it’s unimaginable and terrifying these episodes lead to a lot of confused rhetoric. Three common points of confusion are:

1- School shootings are common

2 – School shootings are random

3 – Banning “assault rifles” or the AR platform will address this problem.

Let’s take them in order.

School shootings are horrific, as is any mass shooting or really any shooting at all. They’re also thankfully rare events. That’s cold comfort for anyone involved but there are a lot of far more common risks to young people we pay little attention to. Drowning, preventable accidents, suicides sexual abuse at the hands of adults, or even laws allowing girls to be married off as minors create more common risks.

There are more than 50 million school aged young people in the country and about 100k K-12 schools. The odds are about one in 614 million for any given student. Our brains struggle with big numbers like that. And social media distorts our sense of how prevalent things are. Especially things that scare us.

None of this is intended to be blasé about the horror of school shootings or to say we shouldn’t take more steps to address them. We should. The point is merely one of perspective. There are other things you should worry about more when it comes to the safety of kids.

In terms of addressing them, it’s important to appreciate just how much school shootings are not random. Four out of five school shooters telegraph their intentions. There are common signs and signals. You should not profile students, there is no typical profile there when it comes to school shootings. But when a student exhibits risk behaviors then schools should notice and take action. And too often they don’t.

Sometimes students don’t have adults in school they trust, so when they see risk signaling behavior but don’t have an adult they trust to go to and share that. And too often schools don’t do enough when they are told. In Parkland, Florida, the shooter explicitly said what he planned to do, school officials were aware of problematic behavior, and students were concerned ahead of time. That’s a culture problem.* And it’s a problem that ideas like “hardening the target” and other popular strategies can actually exacerbate. Certain common sense measures around physical security are important. However, if information is the key to prevention students need adults they trust not fortifications and more stress.

Finally, there is certainly a debate to be had about gun violence in this country. But for young people the violence is largely driven by handguns, which are driving the grinding carnage we see, especially among urban youth. It was a handgun that was used in yesterday’s shooting, that the family apparently purchased just a few days prior. I suspect we will learn a lot more about all that.

ARs, black guns, and “assault rifles” are an easy political target and another feature of our reflexively partisan political discourse. And in my view we should have a national conversation about whether we want long guns, and other weapons, openly carried as a feature of our civic life – whether or not you think Kyle Rittenhouse had a legitimate self-defense claim everything about that situation was pretty screwed up.

Yet banning ARs is not the key to solving our school shooting problem. They are neither the ‘weapon of choice‘ or instrumental here. When a young person gets to the point where they are going to use a firearm to harm others at their school the type of firearm available is not the issue. Rather, culture is. A culture of firearms responsibility, safe storage, and access, and a school culture that does far more to interdict and prevent these episodes long before any shooting starts.

*It’s also a culture problem for our sector’s leaders. The school leadership in Parkland was politically connected so questions about the handling of that entire episode were considered gauche, if not verboten, in polite company. The local paper won a Pulitzer for covering all that. It barely made a dent nationally. Max Eden wrote a book looking at it and the response was furious, and frequently inaccurate relative to the claims in the book, because people don’t like Max Eden. OK, I don’t agree with him on plenty of things in general and claims in the book. But the systemic failures he pointed out in Parkland are real. And ongoing. And offer lessons for other communities.

Just imagine for a moment you’re a parent of a Parkland student and you learn that the shooter told students what he was going to do, they told school officials, and it still happened. How do you even get your head around that? One Parkland parent has launched an initiative just to get honest reporting on discipline and violence in school.