This article appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

TCTA Executive Director Jeri Stone, at right, takes part in one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s roundtable discussions on school safety in May. Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office.

Violence in our classrooms, particularly in the context of school shootings, is proving to be a key focus for analysts, lawmakers and other officials nationwide in a year that has already seen too many tragedies. For Texans, including students, educators, parents and community leaders, the recent attack at Santa Fe High School has made the threat of school shootings all too real. As a result, the debate has begun about how best to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

On May 30, 12 days after the horrific shooting in Santa Fe that left 10 dead and 13 wounded, Gov. Greg Abbott convened a three-day series of meetings, in which TCTA participated, to consider how to enhance school safety. These meetings resulted in Gov. Abbott’s School and Firearm Safety Plan, which has served as the starting point for much of the subsequent statewide discussion about how best to improve school safety. Issues and points of potential conflict are being raised regarding issues as varied as improving access to advanced psychiatric care for rural Texas students and the potential need for a “red flag” law allowing for the temporary removal of guns from the household of an individual who has been deemed by clear and convincing evidence to be a potential threat. The school safety discussions seem to be consolidating around three main points: risk factors for violent behavior, discipline issues and counseling, and building design.

Risk factors

Aside from perpetrators being almost exclusively male, building a profile of a school shooter is difficult. While several school shooters, including the suspect in the Parkland, Florida, shooting in February, have shown serious behavioral problems or issues with extreme isolation for an extended period prior to the event, there does not appear to be a true correlation between isolation and school violence, nor between most behavioral issues and violence. For example, the suspect in the attack at Santa Fe High School was on the honor roll and involved in after-school athletics. However, many rampage killers had exhibited some sort of recent change in behavior, and their plans were usually known or suspected by the people closest to them by the time they came to fruition, as discussed in meetings by the Federal Commission on School Safety and the 2004 and 2018 briefs by the U.S. Secret Service on school shootings.

At both the state and federal level, there has been renewed discussion surrounding the impact of violence in the media on children and adolescents. While many parents have raised this concern, there does not appear to be strong evidence suggesting a causative relationship between violent media and school violence. According to the FCSS, most recent studies have shown that, in aggregate, rates of violence on school grounds, including assault with deadly weapons, have decreased over the last 20 years.

One of the most concerning risk factors suggesting the possibility of another school shooting is media coverage of a recent rampage killing. The “contagion effect” of mass killings is a serious increase in the chance of a shooting in the wake of a prior, widely publicized mass killing. Research shows a strong correlation between the number of tweets regarding a rampage killer and an increased chance of a copycat or similarly inspired attack happening within 90 days. This chance can be further increased if media coverage focuses more heavily on the attacker rather than his victims or goes into detail about the motivations surrounding the attack. This contagion effect is also evident in suicides; rates of suicide spike if another member of the community or celebrity has recently taken their own life. The more coverage the act receives, the more likely it is that a similar attempt at suicide will occur. 

The profile of a school shooter does seem to be fairly consistent in one regard — the attacker has reached a point of crisis or despair in his own life and seeks to end his suffering through violence. When planning a rampage killing, school shooters look at examples of prior school attacks, such as the shootings at Columbine High School or Virginia Tech, and like those shooters, they often expect to die while carrying out the attack.

Discipline and counseling

When there is concern that a student may be a threat to himself or others, decisions must be made as to how to approach the issue to provide the best outcomes for the student in question and the campus community. Teaching both students and faculty to recognize warning signs that someone may be in danger or a danger to others has been a key theme in school safety discussions. Programs such as Mental Health First Aid or the Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage, and Referral project have been raised as potential mechanisms to ensure that students exhibiting worrying signs or behaviors get the attention they need. 

Meanwhile, when dealing with disciplinary issues with students showing concerning behaviors or students displaying more frequent behavioral issues, discussions have focused a great deal on the role of school resource officers. Mental health advocates and policing advocates alike suggest a sharp delineation of duties for school resource officers, making sure that they focus on keeping the school safe rather than routine disciplinary issues or dealing with issues regarding other school personnel. Building stronger relationships between students, faculty and local police could help provide channels of information to the authorities in the event of a serious concern, which could lead to lives being saved. It is also important that school resource officers and other law enforcement personnel who may get involved in the day-to-day life of faculty and students have chances to form strong and clearly defined relationships built on trust. Familiarity between students, faculty and staff can create avenues to ensure that potentially worrying behavior can be recognized by people with the authority to look into the matter. By emphasizing relationships based on trust among all members of the community rather than disciplining students or faculty, school resource officers can ensure they have all the information they need to keep a school safe.

Building design

During a mass shooting like the one at Santa Fe High School, every second of response time it takes for the shooting to stop matters. Even more important is preventing weapons from entering schools in the first place. Anytime a shooter can be stopped at the entrance of the school or at least prevented from roaming the hallways of a campus, lives can be saved. By hardening campuses to prevent unauthorized or dangerous individuals from bringing weapons into the classroom, lawmakers hope to prevent or at least mitigate future violence. Metal detectors at school entrances and portable metal detectors for random weapon checks of students have been raised as potential methods to identify and stop a weapon from entering a school. Whether such measures are effective has already proved to be controversial, and will almost certainly be a strong point of contention during the next legislative session in January.

Other ideas include improving safety by hardening school entrances. The Texas School Safety Center, a research center associated with Texas State University in San Marcos with the goals of preventing school violence, notes that no active shooter has ever breached a secured door. Methods of designing schools to make them safer, such as hardened vestibules and fewer, more heavily guarded entrances, have also been raised as potential methods of increasing school safety. Such initiatives, if implemented statewide, could cost the state or school districts hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

TCTA is working to emphasize the need to involve teachers in the school safety process, and to provide more resources where our campuses need them most to keep our schools safe. Our goals include making sure that campuses have counselors performing in a behavioral capacity, and a clear pathway for teachers to direct students of concern to qualified mental health professionals. We are also emphasizing that teachers are not mental health professionals, and that they need the authority to remove students who may pose a danger to themselves or others to an alternative placement, at least until an assessment of the student’s needs and appropriate placement can be conducted. There will be a great deal of emotionally charged and politically divisive debate over how to keep students and faculty safe from further violence nationwide as lawmakers discuss ways to prevent campuses from becoming the sites of future tragedies. TCTA will work to keep campuses safe and make sure that the invaluable role teachers play in ensuring children have the opportunity to receive a safe and meaningful education is not forgotten.

School boards work to increase campus security

Pending any action from state lawmakers in the 2019 legislative session, local school district officials are already doing what they can with existing resources to make schools safer. Education Commissioner Mike Morath has urged districts to take advantage of resources available through the Texas School Safety Center and to increase the number of school marshals. He also encouraged districts to apply for federal STOP School Violence Prevention and Mental Health Training Program grants, which support efforts to reduce and prevent school violence.

During school board meetings this summer, at least 50 districts announced plans to arm personnel in the 2018-19 school year and increase the police presence on campuses. Many districts increased security budgets and planned to add more video surveillance, and several took part in active-shooter training and other safety discussions with local law enforcement.

Administrators are also taking threats much more seriously, referring more students to the court system. A recent study by advocacy group Texas Appleseed reported a dramatic spike in the number of students referred to law enforcement for threatening to use violence against students and staff since the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida. A Texas Tribune report on the study showed a spike from fewer than 100 referrals a month for terroristic threats in January to nearly 400 in February. More than 80 students statewide were referred to police for showing or threatening to show a firearm in February, up from about 10 in January. The spikes in both categories remained elevated through the end of the school year in May, and many expect the trend to continue as classes resume this fall.