For several years now, there has been rising concern about the mental health of school-aged children. Increasingly, we are seeing the traumas brought on by isolation, technology, and untreated mental issues being played out on and around school campuses, sometimes with tragic consequences.
School violence, particularly gun violence, has become an ever-present concern on campuses nationwide and is every parent’s nightmare. The rise of these tragedies has brought terms like “behavioral threat assessments,” “targeted violence,” and “school hardening,” into the educational lexicon — not to mention “lockdowns” and “active shooter drills.”
For parents, it is a frightening landscape. Public safety sites such as SafeOC can be a valuable tool in helping parents and children understand and deal with potential threats. SafeOC is part of the Department of Homeland Security’s If You See Something, Say Something initiative to raise public awareness about terrorism and violence.
As the website reads, “Whether you are on your way to work, walking in your neighborhood, or out and about in your community, remember: We all play a role in keeping our communities safe. Remember to stay vigilant and say something when you see signs of suspicious activity.”
From information on where to report suspicious activities locally , including a free SafeOC app, to parental support and tips on how to talk to children and teens about the threats and dangers and the importance of speaking out, SafeOC is loaded with valuable information.
A whole new world
A decade ago, school shootings were horrifying but extremely rare. Today they are occurring with horrifying regularity. There is no agreed upon metric or methodology beyond general agreement that shootings are on the rise.
Clayton Cranford, a former Orange County Sheriff’s Department sergeant and School Resources Officer who conducts seminars on school and child safety, saw this coming in the wake of the pandemic.
“I am fearful we will be facing an oncoming tsunami of mass shootings,” he wrote a year ago. “Why? Because of the new and untreated mental health issues and financial strain that have been festering in last year’s pandemic lockdown.”
David Riedman, who compiles and maintains a database on school shootings, said, “In the post-pandemic, students are armed and disputes are escalating in ways they didn’t before.”
Estimates of campus gun violence range from as high as near-daily occurrences, as reported in Riedman’s K-12 School Shooting Database, to near-weekly instances, according to the the Washington Post School Shootings Database, and the Education Week School Shooting Tracker. Other databases report numbers in between. By any metric, the numbers are terrifying.
One of the best hedges against the spate of violence, many believe, are behavioral threat assessment teams that can help intervene and stop the potentially violent from taking their grievances onto campus. Early intervention by teams with law enforcement, education and mental health experience, can not only stop or diffuse situations but, combined with therapy and techniques of restorative justice, can help students who contemplated violence heal and return to school.
Some states and school districts are well down the road in multi-pronged efforts to do their best to assure violence and gun violence are kept away from children. Despite the reported effectiveness of threat assessments, only 18 states are required to have laws mandating threat assessment teams for schools.
Beginning next year, California will require every school to have school threat assessment teams, consisting of school administration, law enforcement, and mental health experts.
Cranford describes threat assessments as “a process by which we evaluate behaviors and intentions that indicate a person is on a path to violence.”
Experts say that in almost every instance of gun violence, the shooter left clues in advance.
“Step-wise there’s a progression,” Cranford said of the path that leads to violence. “The good news is, a lot of it is observable.”
The challenge is to separate real danger from chatter, to act quickly, and to figure out “what can we do to get them off the path?” Cranford said.
The U.S. Secret Service has conducted threat assessments to protect politicians and public officials from danger for 30 years and created the National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) in 1998. Using assessments for schools goes back to the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado, in which two students killed 13 classmates and wounded another 20.
Orange County already has a robust network. In 2001, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s School Mobile Assessment and Resource Team (SMART) was created. The SMART unit assesses threats and responds to incidents related to violence and threatened violence in K-12 schools, as well as possession and/or use of weapons, unstable behaviors, and suicidal actions or tendencies. Other more aggressive methods have also been considered and enacted.
In many schools and districts, threat assessments have replaced zero-tolerance as a preferred method for dealing with violence and threats.
In the “Just Say No” 1980s and ’90s, many districts enacted policies that called for suspension or expulsion at the first hints of violence. Critics said the policy merely shifted the problem off campus without addressing or treating underlying problems.
Blanket zero-tolerance rules for less serious infractions can be problematic, according to experts. Yet, according to USA Today, by 1999 “zero-tolerance policies have become standard operating procedure in the nation’s 109,000 public schools.”
A policy brief by New America said zero -tolerance, “showed scant evidence of reducing crime or violence in schools. On the contrary; research found the policies disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities, lead to higher rates of exclusionary discipline, and have a negative relationship with schoolwide academic achievement.”
According to a Brookings Institute study, “a majority (62%) of U.S. public schools had zero-tolerance policies—or mandatory penalties for students who break certain rules—in place during the 2021–2022 school year. Overall, zero-tolerance policies remain more common in secondary (middle/high) schools than elementary schools.”
However, what zero-tolerance means can vary. In most schools it applies mostly to weapons and drugs. However, “among schools with zero-tolerance policies, a small share (6%) continues to include low-level, nonviolent offenses like willful defiance,” the Brookings study stated.
In California, under California Education Code Section 48915, only severe infractions such as possession, sale, or furnishing of a firearm; brandishing a knife at another; selling controlled substances; attempting or committing sexual assault; or possession of firearms call for mandatory expulsion. And within these infractions there can be exceptions.
Students may also remain in school if “the principal or superintendent determines that expulsion should not be recommended under the circumstances or that an alternative means of correction would address the conduct.”
Getting the guns
Many experts agree that without easy access to guns, many tragedies would have been averted. However, stiffening gun regulations is often met with resistance. According to the Everytown a gun safety advocacy group, stopping school shootings can’t really be addressed until gun access is tackled.
“We must first acknowledge that school violence is, in part, a gun violence problem,” the group states. “Many ‘comprehensive’ school safety plans have been proposed over the last 20 years. Few have thoroughly addressed the issue common in all school shootings: easy access to guns for those at risk of committing harm.”
A Department of Justice study of 50 years of mass shootings stated, “In cases involving K-12 school shootings, over 80 percent of individuals who engaged in shootings stole guns from family members.”
Riedman says, “Hundreds of shootings are carried out by kids 17-under, meaning none of them should have had guns. In virtually every instance, there was a failure of (a gun) owner to be responsible. Safe storage can prevent a large majority (of school shootings).”
According to the Department of Justice, “The findings support safe storage of guns. Yet, the researchers noted that there are no federal laws requiring safe storage of guns, and no federal standards for firearm locks.”
Another tactic of limiting access are so-called red flag laws that allow removing firearms via restraining orders from people at high-risk for using them, even if no crime has been committed.
According to the Department of Justice, “The data also support ‘red flag’ laws permitting law enforcement or family members to petition a state court to order temporary removal of a firearm from a person who presents a danger.”
As of May 2022, according to Axios.com, “currently, 19 states and D.C. have some version of a red flag law,” including California. The efficacy, breadth, strength and enforcement of these laws are left up to individual states.
Mark Oliva, National Sports Shooting Foundation’s Managing Director for Public Affairs, told Axios that the NRA may soften its stand against red flag laws as long as adequate “due process considerations” are addressed before guns are taken.
School officials are hesitant to talk about gun control, saying it is not an “education issue.”
Arming school personnel
Some, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), have suggested arming teachers and school staff.
“We know from past experience, the most effective tool for keeping kids safe is armed law enforcement on the campus,” Cruz said.
That is a claim that has been widely disputed, including by Politifact and a 2021 study by the Rand Corporation and University at Albany that said even armed, trained School Resource Officers, “do not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents.”
In Orange County, Mike Beekman, Executive Director of Safety and Student Service for Capistrano Unified School District, said the suggestion of armed private security has been resisted by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which is “adamantly against it.”
As a cautionary tale about arming teachers and school administrators, the New York Times reported that two months ago that a superintendent of a rural school district in Texas resigned after a third-grade student found a gun the superintendent had left in an elementary school bathroom. That district had approved teachers and staff carrying guns in the wake of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, 240 miles to the south.
“Every student plotting a shooting knows the most difficult part is figuring how to get the gun onto school,” Riedman said. Having armed school personnel, he added, is like “advertising where they can go to get a gun.”
No single strategy will end school gun violence and many may be counterproductive and lead to unintended consequences, like the incident in Texas. Many experts see holistic rather than punitive approaches as the most promising. Of course, a multi-pronged threat assessment program is only as effective as its policies, implementation, and proactive vigilance.
Virginia is a pioneer state in threat assessment and has been widely praised for its program. And yet, in the City of Newport News, Virginia, a six-year-old boy shot and wounded his first-grade teacher.
Despite the strong-on-paper program, the boy, who was not charged with a crime, slipped through some pretty wide cracks in assessment. According to a legal notice filed by an attorney for the wounded teacher, the boy had a history of cursing at staff, chased and tried to whip fellow students with his belt, and once choked another teacher “until she couldn’t breathe.”
“Newport News didn’t know what to do. Threat assessment is only as useful as the time and effort to maintain and train,” Riedman said.
Orange County gets high marks for backing up its policies with more than lip service and walking the walk of assessment and intervention.
“I will tell you, over the years we have intervened and interrupted Columbine-like plans,” Sheriff Don Barnes said in September at a school safety summit. “We have removed bomb-making materials out of kids’ bedrooms, we have taken guns, we’ve (helped) kids with behavioral health issues into treatment to help keep them and their schools safe, and, more important, get them back on track where they can be productive rather than criminal.”