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Preventing School Weapons Assaults

The nuts and bolts of stopping the violence before it happens.

May 01, 2001  |  by Michael Dorn

No one can provide us an accurate count of how many children have been murdered in American public and private schools. The most complete data, compiled by the National School Safety Center, has documented more than 270 violent deaths in American schools since 1993. While our children are safer in school than they are in many other settings, they are often far less safe than they should, and could, be.

It's disturbing that the vast majority of these deaths could have been prevented. Just as the Boston Model has demonstrated that homicide rates in urban centers can be dramatically reduced, there are proven ways to significantly decrease the odds that school weapons assaults will occur.

The following techniques have been time-tested in the hallways of a school district that once had a solid reputation for violence. This district reduced weapons and violence incidents dramatically and has been widely used as a model for school safety.  School district police officers have successfully thwarted six planned school shootings, one planned bombing and one planned double suicide in the district during the past ten years. These tactics have worked in real life, under the most trying of circumstances.

Accurate Reporting, Tracking and Analysis of School Incidents

The single most pressing safety issue in public and private schools is the failure of school and law enforcement officials to report, track and analyze crime on and near school property. Schools cannot fix what has not been diagnosed. Without clear direction from the highest levels, significant underreporting often occurs.

For example, one public alternative school failed to notify the police when the principal found an explosive device in a student's book bag. In another example, a private school did not call the police when a student pulled a handgun and held his teacher and classmates hostage. In other sad instances even law enforcement officers have assisted school officials in covering up crimes on campus. While school crime reporting has improved, it is still not unusual for serious incidents to be handled "administratively" around the country.

On the other hand, there are some progressive communities that actively report incidents on and near schools and use software programs to make the best use of the data. By plotting incidents according to type, location and time of occurrence, available resources can be used more efficiently to reduce problems.

Of course, students must know how they can report weapons and other dangerous situations. They should know how to use tip lines, reward systems, student crime watch programs and anonymous phone and computer reporting systems and other means that have been helpful in recovering contraband. In some cases, they have even prevented planned weapons assaults.

Comprehensive Approach

The problem of weapons violence in our schools is complex. No single strategy will show lasting success. If used as stand-alone solutions, school resource officer programs (SROs), metal detectors, peer mediation programs and bullying programs will fail to produce a truly safe school environment. When a wide range of proactive measures are integrated into a comprehensive strategy, dramatic improvement can result. This strategy should involve a community-based approach tailored to fit the needs and resources of the community. Without open dialogue between school officials and the community, only the façade of school safety will be present. Many of our worst incidents of school violence have taken place in schools that appeared to be safe to the casual observer.

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) recommends establishing a broad-based community working group to help develop an effective strategy. School administrators, teachers, school support personnel, students, parents, public safety officials, mental health professionals, social services representatives, court officials, the media and others who can provide assistance should be invited. The working group can discuss various concerns and suggest options to address them.

An Effective Law Enforcement Partnership

A school without a law enforcement partnership is as outdated as a school without electricity. Multiple victim shootings and hostage situations have occurred in both public and private schools with only 100 to 250 students. While every school does not require a full time SRO, every school should have an effective collaboration with law enforcement. Depending on local needs, this partnership may involve a school district police force, the local sheriff's department, local municipal police department or a combination of agencies.

Clear and Reasonable Expectations

On one hand, some students are given in-school suspension for bringing a handgun to school. On the other end of the spectrum, news reports show an elementary student expelled for a year for having a water pistol. How can a reasonable balance be achieved to avoid both extremes? Consequences for unacceptable behavior should be developed with help from those who will be impacted. With input from the working group, reasonable standards of conduct and appropriate consequences for violations can be established. Violators should face consistent consequences that are adequate to deter the average student from the undesirable behavior without being excessive. Many jurisdictions have found that citations to appear in court combined with normal school disciplinary actions work well to address issues such as fighting and possession of small pocketknives.

Education and Information Strategies

Instructional programs and dissemination of information should be used to prevent undesirable behavior. SROs can teach programs such as Law Related Education and the Gang Resistance Education and Training Program to help students. Students and faculty should be issued a copy of the student code of conduct every year. Posters, short video presentations, intercom announcements, behavior contracts, student assemblies and other means should be used to make expectations clear.

Focus on Triggering Behaviors

Triggering behaviors typically precede school weapons assaults. For a weapons assault to take place, two things must be present: a weapon on campus and the desire by an individual to use that weapon. The weapon may be a gun, knife, chair or ballpoint pen. The triggering behaviors seen most consistently are fighting, bullying, extorting of lunch money and throwing of gang hand signs. It is important that parents, students, educators, court personnel and law enforcement officers understand the likelihood a weapons assault will occur increases every time a triggering event takes place. It is just as important to reduce the prevalence of triggering behaviors as it is to reduce the number of weapons on campus.

Investigate Threats Thoroughly

Thousands of students have made empty threats to commit mass shootings or bombings in recent years. Unfortunately, other threats have been made with serious intent. In some cases where these threats have not been properly investigated children have died.

Every community should have a multidisciplinary team to investigate and assess these situations. An interview team that includes a law enforcement officer and a mental health professional should investigate each incident and report back to a larger team which can include school administrators, prosecutors and others qualified to more thoroughly assess the situation. Reliable assessments cannot be made without the law enforcement and mental health components.

Weapons Screening Program

Currently, students who carry weapons to school are caught only on very rare occasions. Based on student surveys, GEMA's most conservative estimate is that students carry guns to school 18 million times each year. Less than 4,000 student gun expulsions are reported to the United States Department of Education each year. Even after factoring for underreporting, it's estimated that only one gun is recovered for every 4,500 times that a gun is carried to school. For knives and other types of weapons, the rate of carry is even higher and the recovery rates are lower.  It is important to realize that today's student gun violators do not typically show the weapons to other students and do not tell anyone that they have a gun. Schools typically uncover those few weapons carried by violators who are foolish enough to advertise the fact that they are armed.

Visual screening for weapons is one of the most effective methods available to detect weapons on campus. The basic concept of visual screening is that the alert observer can spot the physical reactions of the violator to the presence of the weapon on his or her person. In many cases, part of the weapon itself can be observed. A three minute overview of the basics of visual screening is featured in a free training video produced as a partnership project by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency - Office of the Governor (GEMA), the Bibb County Public Schools Police Department, and Garrett Metal Detectors (see box).

Plain-view vehicle checks are also very effective. It is sometimes astounding how many weapons are recovered the first time an SRO walks through the parking lot and looks through the windows of student vehicles. Careful attention to detail is required. It is highly recommended the remainder of the vehicle be searched when a weapon is recovered.

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