Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
October 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 2

School Shootings: What We Know, What We Can Do

School shootings are difficult to predict, but educators aren't powerless to prevent such tragedies.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Social-emotional learningLeadershipSchool Culture
It's hard to imagine anything more devastating than a deadly shooting at a school. The setting (often thought of as among the safest places in our communities) and the ages of both victims and perpetrators are particularly troubling. The intense media coverage that typically follows a school shooting reinforces how disturbing such events are.
As anyone who's been even tangentially involved with the follow-up of a school shooting knows, reactions to this kind of tragedy aren't uniform and involve as many questions as answers. The aftermath of a school shooting is exceptionally difficult to process—for survivors, of course, and also for classmates, friends and family of victims and survivors, educators, and policymakers. People struggle to find answers to fundamental but complex questions. Why did this happen? Did anyone see it coming? What is it about the perpetrator that we all missed, or failed to respond to properly? In essence, people want to know, could we have predicted—and thus prevented—this shooting from happening?
As educators with expertise in special education and students with emotional and behavioral disorders, we help teachers work with students who show challenging behavior, including behavior that is threatening or violent. We often hear questions like those just mentioned. There are no easy answers, of course, but examining facts about school shootings, as well as research on school-based practices that can help young people at risk of developing antisocial or violent behavior, can give us insight.
So let's consider what we can and can't know about how often school shootings happen, whether we can predict who will become a school shooter or when such a tragedy might unfold, and how we can make schools even safer.

What Do We Know, What Can We Do?

How Often Do School Shootings Happen?

Data on school shootings are limited (thankfully) because despite prominent media coverage, school shootings remain relatively rare occurrences. Although extensive media coverage and conversations with colleagues down the hallway give rise to fears that U.S. schools are experiencing a widespread epidemic of mass violence, school shootings are actually extremely infrequent, especially compared to other forms of danger for children. While acknowledging that even one school shooting is too many, it's good to remember that schools are still almost certainly the safest places in which many of our children spend time.
Consider that, on average, 1,300 children aged 1–17 died from gunshot wounds in the United States each year between 2002 and 2014 (Fowler et al., 2017). In contrast, shootings in school settings accounted for 117 fatalities in total from 2000 to 2014—less than 10 per year (Blair & Schweit, 2014). This suggests that children are more than 130 times more likely to be victims of gun violence outside of school than inside school. To emphasize this point, Dewey Cornell, whose model of threat assessment is widely used in the United States, suggested in testimony to Congress that "the average school will have a student homicide every 6,000 years" (Cornell & Datta, 2016, p. 364).
It's important for school leaders to consider the likelihood of a school shooting when making decisions about the effort, time, and resources to devote to prevention. For example, efforts toward monitoring the severity of threats (such as formalizing threat-assessment protocols) and providing social and behavioral supports to students who need them may well be better uses of resources than more extreme, expensive measures like installing bulletproof glass or instituting active shooter drills. Emphasizing the positive social and emotional development of all students may in the long run be a more effective means of reducing school violence of all forms.

Can We Predict "Who"?

One way to look at possibilities for prediction is to consider whether students from a certain group, or youth with particular social, emotional, or behavioral characteristics may be more likely to become school shooters. People want to know if there is a profile of the typical school shooter. After many shootings, the perpetrator's mental health status or special education status are questioned as possible indicators of their potential to do harm. For example, in the case of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the worst school shooting in U.S. history, significant media attention focused on the suggestion that the perpetrator was, or might have been, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
When we talk with teachers about school shootings, we are inundated with questions specific to students with emotional and behavioral disorders, probably because making threats is characteristic of these learners. In essence, special educators (and many general educators) want to know if they are at an increased risk of having a student carry out an act of extreme violence because they teach students more likely to make such threats (Kaplan & Cornell, 2005). Teachers may even have specific students in mind.
In truth, data on school shooters point only to broad generalizations that provide little help in predicting who will carry out a mass school shooting (Silver, Simons, & Craun, 2018; Vossekuil et al., 2002). For example, most school shooters are white male adolescents or preadolescents. Most had academic and behavioral histories that weren't particularly unusual, were relatively successful in school, and had at least some friends or were part of a social group (they weren't loners or complete outcasts). Obviously, this "profile" describes a huge subset of the school population, the majority of whom will never commit any act of violence, let alone a shooting. For these reasons, various authorities, including the FBI and U.S. Secret Service, have strongly advised against using profiling as a means of prevention (National Threat Assessment Center, 2018; Silver, Simons, & Craun, 2018; Vossekuil et al., 2002).
A related question we hear as we train teachers in responding successfully to students' behaviors is how to handle verbal aggression, specifically how to respond to threats of violence that could lead to harmful acts. In an era of zero tolerance, suspension or expulsion has gained popularity as a first response to such threats. However, as we often tell educators, zero tolerance approaches frequently do more harm than good. They can further alienate students, increase the risk of undesirable outcomes (like more misbehavior or juvenile justice involvement), and damage the overall school climate (Skiba, Arredondo, & Williams, 2014).
Removal from the classroom may be especially problematic for students with disabilities (whether the disability has been identified or not), especially those whose behavior often includes verbal aggression. In such cases, these students lose valuable instructional time. And if they're removed from school entirely, they'll undoubtedly be in less structured places, which creates opportunities for even greater problems. Finally, temporarily removing a student from the classroom or from school may reinforce the very behavior we hope to prevent; the student may learn that to escape from a class or school demand they find intolerable, they just need to act out in a potentially violent manner.

We Can't Predict When, But …

Being able to predict precisely when a shooting might occur—such as the specific date or time, or following some specific behavior—would dramatically improve our efforts to keep schools safe. But again, this isn't possible at present. There aren't enough data to allow us to see patterns or pathways that reliably predict when individual shootings will occur.
Ironically, we do know that threats of school shooting are relatively common in many settings. Most of us who've been teachers know firsthand that threats of extreme violence ("I should blow up this school") aren't at all unusual, especially from students with difficulties regulating their emotional and behavioral responses. The vast majority of such threats are never carried out, making even a clearly communicated threat an unreliable predictor on its own of an eventual incident.

… We Can Evaluate Threats and Choose Safe Responses

This doesn't mean there is no hope for preventing shootings, however. There's an important distinction to be made between the struggle to predict a specific shooting versus our ability to assess threats of school shootings so we can know which ones are most serious and take steps to address them.
The infrequency of school shootings doesn't diminish the difficulty teachers face when they hear or see a student make a threat. Although data show that most threats don't ultimately result in action, educators shoulder a sobering responsibility in having to make decisions about individual threats. The potential consequences of judging a threat incorrectly seem overwhelming. After all, one commonality in past school shootings is that, in many cases, the perpetrator shared his plans with someone prior to the event; that is, the threat became known and wasn't sufficiently attended to (NTAC, 2018; Vossekuil et al., 2002).
Nonetheless, educators' reactions need to be tempered and data-based. There are dangers in both over- and underreacting. One way to respond prudently to a student threat is for a designated team to carry out a threat assessment (Cornell, 2018), a procedure that lets educators take all student threats of violence seriously by evaluating whether the student actually poses a real threat. With a threat assessment, a school-based team of professionals with various expertise (such as school psychologists, administrators, and law enforcement officers) evaluates the nature of the threat, asking the student key questions and probing his or her access to, or means to obtain, a weapon.
This approach distinguishes between transient and substantive threats. A transient threat is a statement or action that doesn't involve a "lasting intent to harm someone" (Cornell, 2018, p. 20). For example, if an agitated student suddenly says, "I'd like to nuke this place!" this is likely a transient threat. Such threats are often followed by an apology or retraction. A substantive threat is more serious and more likely to be carried out. It may include specifics about the place, weapon, or victims of choice (Cornell, 2018).
Through a threat assessment, school faculty can determine the likelihood that any threat will evolve into action—and respond appropriately to ensure everyone's safety. Adults can also help the threat-making student develop skills to solve the underlying problems that triggered their behavior, through arranging for counseling or mentoring, for instance.

How Can We Make Schools Safer?

This question doesn't have a simple answer. If by a safe school we mean a school relatively free of intrusions or attacks, the fact is that most schools are already remarkably safe places for children to spend time. However, school safety can also refer to many other issues. The likelihood of verbal, physical, or sexual assault or bullying, and the overall school climate that educators create, all contribute to the extent to which students feel secure.
Our most productive efforts toward making such shootings even rarer, and making schools safer in general, almost certainly involve moving away from zero tolerance approaches and toward implementing threat assessment as common practice. Whereas zero tolerance offers a one-size-fits-all, reactionary approach to responding to threats of violence, threat assessment enables school leaders to make systematic decisions about the nature of a threat while accounting for unique situations (such as the disability status of the student or access to firearms) in ways that can lessen the possibility of violence. Additionally, this process doesn't stop at the evaluation. Threat-assessment teams address the underlying problems behind a student's frightening words, providing layers of support that improve that student's ability to solve interpersonal problems and successfully participate in school.
Like high-quality instruction, feeling safe is a prerequisite for learning. Although educators can't pinpoint when an act like a school shooting will occur (or who might carry one out), we can responsibly assess threats that surface and provide support to ensure that students remain as safe as possible.
References

Blair, J. P., & Schweit, K. W. (2014). A study of active shooter incidents, 2000–2013. Washington, D.C.: Texas State University and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Cornell, D. (2018). Comprehensive school threat assessment guidelines: Intervention and support to prevent violence. Charlottesville, VA: School Threat Assessment Consultants, LLC.

Cornell, D., & Datta, P. (2016). Threat assessment and violence prevention. In L. Wilson (Ed.), The Wiley handbook of the psychology of mass shootings (pp. 353–371). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Fowler, K. A., Dahlberg, L. L., Haileyesus, T., Gutierrez, C., & Bacon, S. (2017). Childhood firearm injuries in the United States. Pediatrics, 140(1).

Kaplan, S. G., & Cornell, D. G. (2005). Threats of violence by students in special education. Behavioral Disorders, 31, 107–119.

National Threat Assessment Center. (2018). Enhancing school safety using a threat assessment model: An operational guide for preventing targeted school violence. U.S. Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security.

Silver, J., Simons, A., & Craun, S. (2018). A study of the pre-attack behaviors of active shooters in the United States between 2000–2013., Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice.

Skiba, R. J., Arredondo, M. I., & Williams, N. T. (2014). More than a metaphor: The contribution of exclusionary discipline to a school-to-prison pipeline. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47, 546–564.

Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W. (2002). The final report and findings of the Safe School Initiative. U.S. Department of Education Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and U.S. Secret Service. Washington, D.C.: National Threat Assessment Center.

End Notes

1 Since no school shooting can occur without access to guns, a tipping point in deciding whether a threat of a school shooting is substantive involves determining whether the student has access to firearms.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Social-emotional learning
Can We Still Find Joy in Teaching?
Jen Schwanke & Tracey R. Deagle
in 4 hours

undefined
Ready for The Real World
Educational Leadership Staff
1 month ago

undefined
EL Takeaways
Educational Leadership Staff
3 months ago

undefined
Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney on the Power of Belonging
Naomi Thiers
3 months ago

undefined
Re-Framing Teen Stress
Abby Wills
3 months ago
Related Articles
Can We Still Find Joy in Teaching?
Jen Schwanke & Tracey R. Deagle
in 4 hours

Ready for The Real World
Educational Leadership Staff
1 month ago

EL Takeaways
Educational Leadership Staff
3 months ago

Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney on the Power of Belonging
Naomi Thiers
3 months ago

Re-Framing Teen Stress
Abby Wills
3 months ago
From our issue
Product cover image 120037b.jpg
Making School a Safe Place
Go To Publication