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Evidence-Based Tools for Preventing School Shootings

Research and resources to prevent the next school shooting.

Key points

  • Most people who commit a mass shooting are in crisis leading up to the incident and leak their plans to others.
  • Most individuals who commit a school shooting obtain the weapon from a family member (without permission).
  • Educating school communities about how to assess threats of violence can prevent school shootings.

Everyone is connected to someone whose life has been affected; this is an issue that impacts all of us.

Usually, when I write those words, I’m talking about addiction, which is my area of study and a ubiquitous problem in our society.

Today, I’m talking about school shootings, which continue to happen with frightening frequency, taking the lives of hundreds of innocent victims and causing our children to be subjected to routine active shooter drills. As has happened with addiction, it will only be a matter of time before all of us are directly connected to a school shooting.

For me, that day was yesterday, when there was a shooting at the University of Virginia, my alma mater, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where my family lives. Sadly, it wasn’t an isolated incident. Last week was also witness to gun violence and lives lost at the University of Idaho. There have been 275 school shootings so far in 2022, the highest number ever recorded, topping last year’s record high of 250. And we still have more than a month and a half left in the year.

School shootings have sparked contentious debates, many surrounding gun control and mental health. But what does the science say? Is there any way to prevent school shootings? The National Institute of Justice has collected data on what works to detect and prevent school shootings. Here’s what their research has found:

Most people who commit a mass shooting are in crisis leading up to the incident and leak their plans to others.

This is a massive opportunity for intervention. Most individuals who commit a school shooting show signs of being troubled leading up to the incident; almost all are suicidal. They usually engage in warning behaviors, which are a cry for help, either by making comments to friends or through social media. Most of the time these behaviors are never reported to authorities. If you have kids, let them know that if they see anything “off” — even if they aren’t sure if the person is serious — they should always let a trusted adult at their school know.

Educating school communities about how to assess threats of violence can prevent school shootings.

Research has shown that educating students about the mental health needs of fellow students who threaten violence increases reporting. It helps students know they are not being a “snitch” by reporting something of concern a friend or peer said when they understand that behavior is a cry for help.

Schools can best evaluate threats by having threat assessment teams that include school officials, mental health personnel, and law enforcement, who work together to review threats that are reported and decide what course of action is warranted by the circumstances. Very often this will involve referring students to mental health professionals. It is important to point out that while most people who commit school shootings struggle with mental health challenges, they are a tiny percentage of the individuals who experience mental illness. Most people with mental health challenges are not violent.

Most individuals who commit a school shooting obtain the weapon from a family member (without permission).

According to one study, 80 percent of individuals who commit a school shooting stole the weapon from a family member. Securely storing firearms is a critical tool in preventing school shootings.

There are many resources for schools and communities to implement ways to detect and prevent school shootings:

By working together, we can reduce the lives lost and people impacted by the heartbreak of school shootings. These tragedies are preventable, and the research can help guide the way to a future where all of us aren’t touched by the horror of school shootings.

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