Every school shooting inspires a slew of broad-brush solutions. Most have something to offer, but none are the impenetrable shields we all seek. At least a few are controversial, many are dauntingly expensive, and half are beyond local control –but hearing them out is essential if we hope to move beyond ideological gridlock and glib soundbites – any solution that can easily fit in a nutshell most likely belongs there. Even solutions that appear reasonable at first glance come with numerous caveats and complications. Consider the following:
1. No guns for bad guys. We should at least avoid arming the clearly dangerous in the first place and, when too late for that, disarm those already carrying — which sounds straight forward, but it’s not. First, this would require functional background checks – a tricky proposition. Adequate staffing to manage the system, accurate data entry and extensive compliance would all be necessary. Congress barred felons from possessing guns in 1968, adding domestic violence misdemeanants to the list almost 30 years later, but what about bad-guys-in-training? Checks wouldn’t catch most first-timers, which means most school shooters, and screening out owners before they’ve killed anyone is a hugely challenging concept. What about anyone suffering from mental illness–where do we draw the line? Is minor depression enough? Do they need to behave delusionally? And as for potential school shooters, who gets to decide? Could counselors or school resource officers be empowered to list kids – and their friends – and their parents –based on schoolyard threats and web postings?
2. Good guys with guns (GGWGs) in schools. Consider how extensively police applicants are screened for criminal histories, mental instability, or homicidal tendencies, after which they receive extensive training. Contrast that with armed teachers, students or community volunteers. Some might be great, with relevant training and experience, (and in some rural areas they could be the only armed guardians within an hour’s drive) but many would pose serious risks. Who lands the job of screening these applicants and rejecting any loose cannons? Furthermore, if a shooting does occur, how are responding police supposed to discern which armed subjects pose immediate threats? The only good guys with guns on campus should be highly trained and vetted.
3. Publicity blackouts. Malcolm Gladwell recently suggested that thresholds play a role. The concept is that the more shootings are publicized, the more new shooters emerge — A useful observation only if we manage to eliminate detailed coverage of shootings, including both the shooters’ names and the grizzly details. In conjunction with first amendment concerns, this would require blanket cooperation not only from the mass media, but from every student inclined to post clips to the web.
4. Home Visits. Home visits, weapons checks and confiscation following all threats might help. If a kid is building bombs in the attic, I’d appreciate it if a dog could sniff around. Even if a kid is merely mouthing off, a visit might serve as a wake-up call. Bibb County, Georgia schools found this productive back in the nineties, bringing along a school counselor to help ease the tension. Of course if the searches became predictable, serious sociopaths could find new stash sites for their weaponry, but not all would have that level of foresight. Parents might cooperate but undoubtedly some would not, and if authorities overreacted this could get ugly fast.
5. Connectivity, Positive School Climates, and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS) undoubtedly help build better schools–reducing bullying and alienation, while improving academic performance and general happiness. Hopefully, these would improve our odds at deterring shooters, but no one can say for sure. Schools where shootings have occurred to date generally have not been notably negative or alienating. Establishing one-on-one connectivity with troubled kids would be ideal, but is easier said than done.
6. Therapy. Counseling and medication might help, but only if readily available, and the student accepted them and they proved effective. Big ifs. School psychologists have no magic fairy dust, and sociopaths aren’t particularly responsive to therapy.
7. Communication. Any measures that build students’ willingness to confide in school staff are laudable. Tip lines and surveys can help, but come with no guarantees. Historically, in most school shootings someone knew something ahead of time, but either didn’t report it, failed to connect the dots or didn’t know how to intervene effectively.
8. Site changes. Good school design can make a huge difference. A capacity to see threats approaching, lockdown instantly and call for help is critical. But each site requires its own analysis—broad brush solutions often fail. For example, consider extensive fencing. More than one shooter has simply parked in the main parking lot and walked through the nearest doorway. Perimeter fencing can even prove counterproductive, obligating students to walk a more circuitous route to school, exposing them to street crime, pedophiles, car exhaust or drunk drivers.
9. Pre-planning. Crisis plans, drills, threat assessments and behavioral interventions are all essential, but must be done well, in a manner consistent with the research—using drills which oblige staff to act as they would during actual crises. If done poorly they can exacerbate tragedies and lead to civil suits.
So where should schools begin? Start small. More broadly applicable solutions may emerge, but first, before prescribing solutions to all shootings everywhere, pause to consider–in just this one case, what specific measures can you implement locally that can realistically make a difference?
This article was originally published in the Eugene Register-Guard, November 15, 2015.