School Violence: Understanding the Problem

The vast majority of schools will never experience a school shooting, and far fewer will experience the large-scale, random rampage that is driving the intense public debates regarding school safety. The simple fact is that schools and similar locations where guns are prohibited are not at higher risk for mass gun violence.


Of the 111 mass shootings that were perpetrated in the United States from 1966 to 2015 in which at least six people were fatally shot, only 18 occurred in locations where civilians were restricted from carrying guns.


But the recent spate of mass murders in schools has left people very jittery. The high number of casualties so close together has made school violence seem like an inevitability for some, despite federal data to the contrary. In fact, statistics show that, according to many indicators, schools have become safer over time.

Legitimate or not, fears about student safety that often follow mass school shootings put principals in an extremely difficult position. It’s the principals who are closest to the fear and anxiety of parents, students, and teachers. It’s the principals who are the ones being questioned about building safety. And it’s the principals who are being asked if the staff is prepared for the unthinkable.


Arm the Teachers!

Many ask, “Why not train and arm teachers with guns?” According to, the national median time required for adequate firearms training is sixty hours. Is the public prepared to give every teacher sixty hours of training on how to shoot a gun? And, if not all teachers, why not at least some of the teachers? Or maybe, a custodian, or a guidance counselor, or even the vice-principal?


However, mastering the effective use of a firearm is not merely a technical matter. While it is one thing to become proficient shooting at a target, it is quite another to shoot at another human being. According to Police Chief Magazine, “The realities of deadly force confrontations have taught us that in these dynamics, rapidly unfolding, ambiguous and dangerous situations, there will be officers whose shots miss the target, or officers who for good reason decide not to discharge their weapons.” 


If even with professionally trained officers, who will occasionally misfire or not fire at all, what can be said regarding educators who, for the most part, are humanists and likely would not use their weapons? It is more likely that there will be hesitation, which may carry the risk of putting their own lives in danger. 


Psychological First Aid

Teachers, students, and families justifiably feel completely overwhelmed upon hearing the horrific news of a mass school shooting. Even for those who were not directly impacted, the news coverage itself can be very traumatic. 


The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) suggests introducing “Psychological First Aid” in these situations. The NCTSN offers in-depth guidelines to assist principals in navigating through a crisis in a trauma-sensitive way. The key to the process is having age-appropriate open conversations for younger and older students where everyone can express their feelings and hopefully receive some comfort.  


Creating Calm 

Whenever there is a violent event in a school anywhere in the country, parents, teachers, and students want to be assured that principals take it seriously and that they respond with a sense of urgency.

Some principals see offering reassurance as their primary role in these situations. An essential way to help the community feel safer and more secure is by reminding them that there is a plan in place for an active shooter and other dangerous situations.

Another way is to reassure people subconsciously by being a visible presence in the school. When the principal is seen to assume leadership, people begin to feel that things are under control. Principals need to communicate all the ways they work to keep their schools safe. They need to clearly explain how those safety-related decisions are made and invite the parents and community members to give feedback.

Parents want to know specifics. How is the school preparing to meet a variety of security threats? Will the children be trained to react? If there is an emergency, how will parents be notified? Do the parents have a role at home or in school? 


Improving School Security

Unfortunately, society cannot make our schools attack-proof. Even military installations around the world are incapable of preventing terrorist assaults sometimes. Tragically, evil genius can invent ways to penetrate even the most impregnable of defenses. However, this imperfection is no license to sit back and allow something terrible to happen. 


At the same time, school safety shouldn’t be reduced to a reflexive mass purchase of expensive metal detectors and other security equipment after a tragedy somewhere else in the country traumatizes everyone. Instead, protecting our schools is better achieved through a carefully crafted process of refining how schools prevent and prepare for unexpected violence.


Crisis Planning

It begins with having a conversation with parents and teachers about long-range goals, and deciding how to implement specific security measures being proposed, in consultation with security authorities. 


Appoint multiple staff members to handle the same responsibilities in a crisis. This duplication ensures that someone will always be prepared. Review the safety plan with staff and students. Knowing what to do in the face of the unthinkable can help staff and students feel that they’re taking back a bit of control. 

When the plan is finally worked out, please write a letter to parents, reminding them about safety procedures. Don’t forget to tell them that the administrative staff and local law enforcement have worked together to craft a strategic plan designed to save lives.


Here are some key features of such a plan:


  • Limit access to the school building, including assigning a designated entrance with other access points locked from the exterior of the building

  • Establish campus monitors to patrol the parking lot, noting people who enter and leave the campus

  • Appoint staff members to supervise and monitor playgrounds, hallways, and cafeterias

  • Hire security guards or officers to patrol the entire campus

  • Require all guests to report to the main office, sign and don tags; instruct staff members to report anyone unfamiliar to the office

  • Augment these strategies with automated security systems (exit door alarms, metal detectors, and video monitoring