By Bill Dedman
Investigative Reporter, NBC News
It happened after Columbine, after Virginia Tech, and after Newtown, too. After every massacre in a school, Americans grasp at quick cures. Let's install metal detectors and give guns to teachers. Let's crack down on troublemakers, weeding out kids who fit the profile of a gunman. Let's buy bulletproof whiteboards for the students to scurry behind, or train kids to throw erasers or cans of soup at an attacker.
Researchers who study school shootings say the nation has done the wrong things, again and again, to prevent these rare but frightening events. And when more promising measures that address the real causes of school shootings are tried, the money has ridden a rollercoaster, rising a year after a major attack, then falling as memories fade. Only one out of five schools currently gets money for one of the Obama administration's signature programs to reduce school shootings.
"Many of the school safety and security measures deployed in response to school shootings have little research support," concluded a 2010 research article in Educational Researcher, "What Can Be Done About School Shootings?: A Review of the Evidence." The researchers called the widely adopted policies of zero-tolerance discipline and student profiling "unsound practices."
The problem, the researchers say, is that the nation hasn't paid attention to actual research about how school shootings unfold.
School shooters don't "snap" or "go crazy." They have serious grievances, and they plan their attacks. Many felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others. They engaged in behaviors that caused other students and adults to think they needed help. They showed difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. They told others about their plan. And they had access to weapons.
These patterns point to a different set of preventive measures. Instead of trying to put metal detectors at every door, which do little more than ensure that the operator of the metal detector gets shot first, schools need to do the more difficult work of creating schools where bullying is not allowed, where grievances are dealt with quickly, where students feel safe speaking up about a student they're concerned about, where students feeling suicidal have someone to talk with. And at home, guns need to be under lock and key.
Paying attention to the evidence
A landmark study in 2002 by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, examining the facts of 37 school shootings, identified patterns contradicting the public perception of a loner who "just snapped":
- Incidents of targeted violence at school are rarely sudden, impulsive acts.
- Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.
- Most attackers engaged in some behavior, prior to the incident, that caused concern or indicated a need for help.
- Most attackers were known to have difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Many had considered or attempted suicide.
- Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
- There is no accurate or useful "profile" of students who engage in targeted school violence. Some come from good homes, some from bad. Some have good grades, some bad.
- Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
- Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea or plan, and often other students were involved.
What steps should schools take?
The researchers urged that schools take the following steps:
- Assess the school’s emotional climate.
- Emphasize the importance of listening in schools.
- Adopt a strong, but caring stance against the code of silence.
- Prevent, and intervene in, cases of bullying.
- Involve all members of the school community in planning, creating and sustaining a school culture of safety and respect.
- Develop trusting relationships between each student and at least one adult at school.
- Create mechanisms for developing and sustaining safe school climates.
The researchers acknowledge that these steps are not a cure-all and will not prevent every incident. The Newtown shooter, for example, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, wasn't like the rest. He was an adult, rather than a current student at the school he attacked. But these preventive measures fit most of the cases.
The White House response to Newtown
The Obama administration's public response to the killing of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was mostly to push for gun-control legislation. Newtown became a debate about guns, and the president got none of his gun controls through Congress: no background checks, no limitations on military-style weapons or high-capacity magazines.
Quietly, the administration proposed this year a list of school safety measures that are closer to those recommended a decade earlier by researchers. Still, the programs were wrapped up inside a gun-control initiative, part of the administration's "Now Is the Time" initiative "to protect our children and communities by reducing gun violence."
Key elements of the Obama plan for school safety:
- Ensure that every school and college has a comprehensive emergency management plan, using best practices for training and emergency drills.
- Create a safe and positive school climate, with programs to address bullying, drug use, poor attendance. Foster programs in conflict resolution and violence prevention.
- Make sure that students and young adults up to age 25 can get treatment for mental health issues.
- Add up to 1,000 counselors and police officers in schools — called school resource officers — and help schools buy safety equipment and train crisis intervention teams.
And on Tuesday, Vice President Biden met with parents from Newtown, as he announced funding for mental health treatment programs. (See the video below from NBC Nightly News.)
This time, administration officials suggest, the right responses to school attacks will be sustained.
"I was in Newtown recently to work with the school district on their recovery efforts," said David Esquith, director of the Education Department's Office of Safe and Healthy Students. "We are working tirelessly with school districts across the country to help prevent something like that from ever happening again."
Not enough money
The funding for these programs is only a small part of what's needed. For example, the administration has proposed to spend $50 million for grants to schools to help them transform the school culture into a healthier environment. Before Newtown, 18,000 schools had already received training, and the new money, if approved by Congress, will reach 8,000 more schools.
But there are 130,000 elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. At that rate, costing $6,000 per school, it will require another $600 million to implement that one program at every school.
Esquith called politely on the country to not forget school shootings this time around.
"We can and must do more to improve our schools' ability to prevent, respond to and recover from emergencies," he said. "Every community across the country needs to look at whether business leaders, faith-based leaders, political leaders, and schools are doing all that they can to keep our nation’s children safe from harm. That includes Congress and other policymakers here in Washington maintaining focus on the safety of students and staff even when it’s not the top item in the daily news cycle."
More from NBC News Investigations:
- Newtown report: Lanza had no clear motive, was obsessed with Columbine
- Teen suspect in murder of teacher Colleen Ritzer left 'hate' note, documents say
- Jimmy Breslin, the gravedigger and 'the bleary day' they buried JFK