Gabor: The Focus on School Security is Myopic
In this article, Thomas Gabor, author of Confronting Gun Violence in America, discusses how America suffers so many school shootings and the way in which it is being addressed.
America is a major outlier in its gun ownership and gun violence levels relative to other advanced countries. While accounting for five percent of the world’s population, a third of the planet’s mass killings occur in America.1 Among G7 countries, the US has experienced 288 school shootings since 2009, whereas none of the other six nations has experienced more than two of these incidents.2 School shootings now occur in America more than once a week.3
While enhancing school security is a legitimate short-term measure in keeping students safe, it falls seriously short of a comprehensive approach to the problem. Targeted school attacks were exceedingly rare prior to 1992, when school security was a low priority.4 Armed security, active shooter drills, and lockdown procedures, all of which are routine in public schools today, were unheard of before the 1990s. Thus, security vulnerabilities alone cannot account for the recent surge in school shootings as schools typically adopt far more security measures than in the past. Something else must be driving the recent surge.
Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has shown that 18-29 year-olds are becoming more disengaged from community life. Church attendance, involvement in public meetings and political activities have all declined sharply from the 1970s. Young people spend more time alone than they did decades ago and spend an inordinate amount of time using electronic devices. Those experiencing some form of crisis are less likely to lean on the family, place of worship, or social organizations as their ties to these institutions are weaker. Depression among the young has increased dramatically and there has been a 50 percent increase in suicide among 15-24 year-olds from 1999-2014.5 This is the age group most at risk to commit school attacks. There is a significant pool of alienated and depressed young people who may experience despair following a major event, such as expulsion from school, loss of a relationship, ostracism by peers, or bullying.
Coinciding with this trend toward increasing social isolation, has been increasing access to weapons designed for combat that can fire highly lethal, high velocity bullets rapidly and that, when equipped with high capacity magazines, can allow a shooter to discharge up to 100 rounds without reloading. The Parkland (Fla.) shooter obtained his AR-15 legally when he was 18, despite numerous disturbing actions and calls to law enforcement.
The combination of a large pool of at-risk youth and easy access to highly lethal weapons is a recipe for the mass casualty shootings we have seen. Yet legislators, driven by short-term considerations, are often indifferent to social factors driving this trend and unwilling to risk the political consequences associated with confronting an intransigent gun lobby that resists even the most popular and modest attempts at gun regulation. Given the political stalemate in Washington and in many states, the environment is not favorable to significant reforms in gun policy. Instead, Americans are offered enhanced school security, including the arming of school personnel.
There are numerous other “soft” targets for shooters, including theaters, shopping malls, clubs, airports, and stadiums. Thus, hardening schools alone fails to address the risks to which other citizens are exposed and may place other targets at increased risk as perpetrators seek less fortified targets. Many schools around the country already have adopted some basic security measures. In Florida, after the Parkland mass shooting, just $100 million has been allocated for school security, or about $25,000 per public school. This may be enough to install about a dozen security doors in classrooms.
A serious effort to enhance school security involves access control protocols (screening all who enter a school each day), surveillance through monitored cameras and patrols, adequate perimeter security, intrusion detection systems, security doors and bullet-resistant windows, adequately trained and properly armed security personnel; emergency communications, and lockdown procedures. Turning schools into prison-like facilities is prohibitively expensive, creates more fear and disruption for teachers, staff and students, and fundamentally alters the learning environment. Resources are also inevitably drawn from educational budgets.
In the unlikely event we go down this path, we could only mitigate risk in relation to one type of soft target–schools. Until we address the social isolation and other factors that drive school shooters, along with the easy access to weapons capable of mass slaughter, the promise of a safer society will be unfulfilled.
1. S. Timberg, Mass shootings and the dark side of American exceptionalism. Salon (2015). Available at: https://www.salon.com/2015/08/27/mass_shootings_and_the_dark_side_of_american_exceptionalism_they_happen_because_theres_a_large_gap_between_what_people_are_aspiring_to_and_what_they_can_realistically_achieve/
2. C. Grabow and L. Rose, CNN (2018). Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/21/us/school-shooting-us-versus-world-trnd/index.html
3. P. Bump, Eighteen years of gun violence at US schools mapped. Washington Post (2018). Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/02/14/eighteen-years-of-gun-violence-in-u-s-schools-mapped/?utm_term=.4f8d4f30c3a3
4. US Secret Service and Department of Education, The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative. Available at: http://www.scstatehouse.gov/CommitteeInfo/SchoolSafetyTaskForce/September112014Meeting/ssi_final_report.pdf
5. D. Grossman, Reducing youth firearm suicide risk. Pediatrics. Published online, February 21, 2018.