Preventing School Shootings

            In this article in Education Week, Jillian Peterson (Hamline University/St. Paul) and James Densley (Metropolitan State University/St. Paul), both leaders of The Violence Project, say there is a $3 billion industry focused on protecting students and educators from mass shootings: reconfiguring school architecture, classroom locks, security cameras with facial recognition, safe rooms, bulletproof windows, Kevlar backpack inserts, and lockdown drills. “There is no evidence that any of this stuff works,” say Peterson and Densley. “All we do know is that the search for school safety solutions is sending districts into more debt and hurting school climate.” More than half of U.S. teens worry about a shooting in their school, even though the chance of that happening is roughly one in 614 million.

            Peterson and Densley spent two years looking for a better approach. Under a grant from the National Institute of Justice, they studied the life histories of mass shooters back to 1966 and all school shootings starting with Columbine. They also interviewed incarcerated school shooters, their families, students who planned violence but changed their minds, survivors, teachers, administrators, and first responders. They combed through media and social media, suicide notes and manifestos written by perpetrators, trial transcripts, and medical records. The researchers found that although there isn’t a single profile or predictor of violence, school shooters shared these characteristics:       

-   98 percent were male.

-   They were almost always a student in the school.

-   They were angry or despondent over a recent event, resulting in suicidal feelings.

-   They expected to die in the act, so their plans were suicidal.

-   They suffered early-childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age.

-   They studied other school shootings, often online, and found “inspiration.”

-   They had access to weapons to carry out an attack; in 80 percent of cases, guns belonged to family members, most often parents and grandparents.

These common factors say Peterson and Densley, suggest strategies to prevent school shootings from happening in the first place:

  • Mitigate childhood trauma through school-based mental health services provided by counselors and social workers. 
  • Implement curriculum units on positive coping skills, resilience, and social-emotional learning, especially for young boys.
  • Be alert to signals of trouble: “In 80 percent of cases,” say the researchers, “school shooters communicated to others that they were in crisis, whether through a marked change in behavior, an expression of suicidal thoughts or plans, or specific threats of violence.” All school staff needs training in picking up signs, and everyone should have access to a system for anonymously reporting a student in crisis. 
  • When a student makes a threat or shares a plan, that’s a de facto suicide note and should be treated as a cry for help. “By unduly punishing or criminalizing students making threats,” said Peterson and Densley, “schools pile on stress and exacerbate any grievance… Schools need care teams dynamic enough to see opportunities to connect students with needed resources and safeguard them in a wraparound process.” In interviews with students who planned an attack and changed their minds, the reason was always that an adult reached out and provided hope. 
  • Schools need media literacy curriculum units to help students more critically assess what’s on the Internet and see-through extremist propaganda.
  • Lockdown/active shooter drills “send the message that violence is normal when it’s not,” said Peterson and Densley. What’s more, drills may teach potential shooters (who may be taking part as students) what security measures are planned, providing guidance for working around them. “All adults in the school should be trained in active-shooter response, but schools can stop spreading the script of mass violence by protecting their students from these drills.”
  • Schools need to send a strong message to families on the importance of securing all firearms in the home.


“Why School Shootings Happen” by Jillian Peterson and James Densley in Education Week, October 9, 2019 (Vol. 39, #8, p. 20),; the authors can be reached at and

Marshall Memo #807

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