In a Baltimore conference room filled with school-based police officers intent on stopping the next school shooting, psychologist Peter Langman offered a perspective that in 2018 seemed underappreciated, if not profound.
“When you get out of your car and walk into the school building, you’ve just gone from the most dangerous place you’ll be all day to the safest place,” Langman, an expert on the psychology of school shooters, said during a recent National Association of School Resource Officers conference.
This year, however, it was the threat of school shootings, not their statistical rarity, that rose to the top of Americans’ minds. People, Langman said, are far more likely to die in a traffic accident than a school shooting. According to an analysis of such incidents by The 74, at least 50 people were killed and 88 injured in firearm incidents at K-12 schools and colleges in 2018.
Just a few weeks into 2018, the conversation about gun violence in America’s schools poignantly re-emerged when a gunman walked into a rural Kentucky high school and opened fire, killing two people and injuring 18 others. Still, the worst was yet to come. Just weeks later, a gunman killed 17 people at a school in Parkland, Florida — one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. Then in May, 10 people were shot dead at a school in Santa Fe, Texas.
The response was unprecedented. Thousands of students across the country marched out of their classrooms to demand action from lawmakers. Student survivors from Parkland became household names in their advocacy for stricter firearm rules.
“Part of us died that day,” Ilan Alhadeff, the father of one Parkland shooting victim, said after the tragedy. “My daughter was shot that day in the heart, the spine, in the femur and artery. If she lived, she would have been paralyzed for life. No parent should have to deal with this again. No family.”
Lawmakers passed a bevy of new laws mandating a range of responses — from hiring more school-based police to “red flag” laws that temporarily strip firearms from people who present a danger to themselves or others.
School districts across the country opened their wallets, spending education resources on surveillance cameras and other tech-driven security. In a draft report, a state panel investigating the Parkland shooting found several ways in which school and police officials failed to avert the tragedy. Sheriff’s deputies didn’t rush into the school to stop the gunman, according to the report, and school staff left doors unlocked and did not call a “code red” alarm quickly enough.
School safety even worked its way into the 2018 midterm elections and may have affected the outcome of several races.
Throughout 2018, The 74 tracked firearm incidents on K-12 school and college campuses that resulted in injury or death. More than half of the injuries and deaths can be attributed to just three incidents: The shootings in Marshall County, Kentucky; Parkland; and Santa Fe. The shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe were the only ones to result in more than two fatalities.
While heated debate persists over the precise definition of a “school shooting,” we found the firearm incidents varied significantly. For example, five students and one school resource officer died as the result of suicide. Other incidents occurred during afterschool sports events: One person was killed and six were injured in shootings that unfolded during three separate football games, and another was injured during a track meet.
Seven of the incidents unfolded in school parking lots. Several were reportedly accidental, while others stemmed from fights that escalated. Though a majority of incidents took place at high schools, some involved younger children. Current or former students were identified as perpetrators in about half of the incidents.
Taken as a whole, the data underscores a disconnect between the heated political debates surrounding school shootings and the threat they pose to children in classrooms. School shootings are extremely rare — and the type of mass shootings that drive policy are rarer still.
But fear can cloud objective decision-making, argues David Ropeik, a former Harvard University professor and a consultant on risk perception. In his own analysis, he puts the odds that a K-12 student will be shot and killed at a public school at roughly 1 in 614 million. Over the past two decades, fewer than 3 percent of youth homicides and fewer than 1 percent of youth suicides occurred at school, according to a recent National Center for Education Statistics report.
But when a large number of people die in a single event, Ropeik said, the tragedy feels uniquely threatening. Parents are particularly afraid of threats to their children, especially when managing such risks is largely out of their control. Those concerns, he said, are magnified by the intensely polarized debate over American gun policy.
“We’re not talking about kids being shot to death by bows and arrows,” Ropeik said. “It is undoubtedly easier to kill people with a gun than anything else — a lot of people all at once, especially. So there is a unique aspect to the shooting part of the issue [that] society has to come to grips with, and that’s tied up in our partisan, tribal polarities.”
The partisanship has only magnified since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 26 children and educators dead, argues Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. In recent years, both gun rights and gun control groups “have hijacked school safety to advance their political agendas.” That partisanship, he said, means that “knee-jerk legislation” has often taken precedence over comprehensive policies to address school safety.
Trump said the Florida legislature’s reaction to the Parkland school shooting was a “textbook example” of what to avoid after a school shooting. That law required all schools to hire armed police or security staff, a requirement districts struggled to meet. It also required districts to conduct school security assessments that Trump said were a “hodgepodge patchwork” of physical security checklists that didn’t focus on finer aspects of school safety like emergency planning.
But not everyone agrees. Mark Barden said he has seen remarkable progress in school safety since his son was killed at Sandy Hook. Barden is a co-founder and the managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit that teaches students and adults how to recognize the warning signs of gun violence. He cited growing support among Americans for stricter gun laws.
Trump said the rush to implement stricter policies after mass shootings could be problematic, but Barden said recent tragedies have galvanized people to take action. While gun control activists faced several high-profile electoral defeats in November, including in Florida’s close gubernatorial race, one gun control PAC endorsed 95 candidates who went on to win their seats in the House of Representatives.
“We just saw a whole bunch of policymakers win their seats because they campaigned primarily on strong gun violence prevention policy,” he said. “I have always known that we had the numbers, but I just think folks were not engaged, and so we’re seeing that engagement now begin to build.”
Barden is among a growing list of parents and students who’ve become advocates for measures like gun control or stricter school security measures after experiencing tragedy firsthand. That emotional appeal can be effective in encouraging people to join political causes, said Nadine Connell, an associate professor of criminology and director of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. But that pain, she warned, can lead to shortsighted public policy.
“We can’t create policy based on somebody’s pain,” she said. “That’s understandably difficult for people to wrap their heads around because the pain is so great.”
Connell is currently building a database of all school shootings in the U.S. dating back to 1990, which she hopes will help law enforcement and school leaders better understand the causes of school violence and how to prevent it. Although she is still finalizing that report, she said the number of school shootings has remained relatively consistent in the past few decades even as the number of children in America’s K-12 schools has grown.
She said schools still don’t know how best to prevent school shootings because researchers don’t yet fully understand the underlying motives of school shooters, who are not a homogeneous group. But if officials address other social problems facing children, shootings could also be averted, she said.
“If our real concern is the safety and well-being of young people, school shootings need to be very low on the list of things that we worry about,” Connell said. “Suicides need to be up there, child neglect and child abuse needs to be up there, and so when you think about it from a social perspective, are we investing in the right things?”
Some policies passed to thwart school shootings have unintended consequences, she said. For example, she said an increase in school-based police could increase student contact with law enforcement “so now we’re getting more minority young people involved in the criminal justice system, which is an extremely negative outcome on so many levels.”
Langman, the expert on the psychology of school shooters, believes education and law enforcement officials have the potential to stop gunmen. He spent the bulk of his speech at the school resource officers’ conference reading the harrowing, and often profane, journal entries and classroom assignments from soon-to-be killers. If officials are vigilant, he said, they can identify students at risk of becoming violent and possibly avert the next school shooting.
But the large-scale concern over school shootings this year also comes with broader implications for student mental health. He said the issue came up at his private practice in Pennsylvania after the shooting in Parkland. After the tragedy, one of his patients, a teenage girl, was living in fear that she’d be shot dead in her classroom. But the girl was more likely to die from being struck by lightning, Langman said.
“If we’re not going through our day worrying about that lighting bolt,” he said, “you don’t have to worry moment by moment of being gunned down at school.”