Preventing School Shootings Requires Additional Measures

Early identification and intervention is needed alongside active shooter drills.

Posted Jun 12, 2018

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The ongoing horrors of school shootings has wrought such terror upon parents, educators and communities that schools nationwide are working overtime to fine-tune active shooter drills, hire additional security and reduce emergency response times.

While these approaches likely save lives, schools would be wise to understand that when a student enters a school with a gun, and an intent to kill, it’s already too late.

The shootings that have taken place in Florida, California, Texas and elsewhere serve to illustrate this point, as many of these schools had armed officers, well-rehearsed crisis protocols and even systems in place for reporting behavior that constituted threats. These precautions failed to save countless students and educators, gunned down by troubled young men with access to high-caliber weapons.

Such tragedies illustrate the necessity of not just responding to existing dangers in schools. Schools must commit to preventive protocols that seek to identify the earliest indications of a potential crisis rather than wait for clear signs of an impending threat.

Effective prevention of school shootings begins by creating multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams to identify at-risk individuals. These teams must receive training, meet regularly and utilize established protocols for tracking “red flag” behavior in individuals or groups – for example, suspensions, erratic behavior and an affinity for guns and violence.

The key distinction among preventive models is that these early warning signs set off necessary procedural alarm bells, triggering team members to immediately conduct investigations, perform threat assessments and determine best methods for intervention, community notification and response.

While it may seem like common sense, this preventive approach is rarely embraced by K-12 schools. Administrators are often wary of taking action in advance of clear evidence that an individual poses an immediate threat. It is for this reason that shooters frequently exhibit red flag after red flag – a seemingly endless trail of warning signs that, in retrospect, appears obvious, but nobody pieces together before it’s too late.

Contributing to inaction is a widespread misunderstanding surrounding federal privacy laws. Even educators and health professionals are often unaware of specific health and safety exemptions for both the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), relevant privacy-related state laws and the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). While these exemptions make it perfectly legal to share medical and educational records of those suspected of being a danger to themselves or others, many professionals are fearful of violating legal statutes and thus keep worrisome information confidential rather than reporting it to threat assessment teams and appropriate authorities.

The very best preventive threat assessment protocols go further than identifying would-be shooters, but assess each situation with an eye toward seeking early and appropriate treatment as well as engaging families. This rehabilitative rather than disciplinary approach creates avenues for inviting formerly at-risk individuals back into school, as appropriate, once benchmarks measuring therapeutic progress are met. It also serves to encourage peers, teachers, coaches and others to report concerning behavior, as people usually hesitate to notify authorities about early warning signs when the most likely outcome for the individual in question is juvenile detention or jail.

It is natural that following a school shooting, communities pour their energy into efforts like shortening emergency response times and honing active shooting drills. Focusing on these reactive measures gives us a sense of greater control when faced with the terrifying thought that our children are at risk of joining the number of victims lost to mass shootings that have grown increasingly common.

There’s no doubt these measures reduce casualties and save lives. However, they must be paired with tried-and-true preventive approaches to best ensure the safety of our children.

The rationale for additional, proactive, preventive measures is well worth repeating: when a student enters a school with a gun, and an intent to kill, it’s already too late.