School Shooting in the US: How Far Have We Come?

School shootings in the United States are a statistically rare, albeit devastating, occurrence. There have been many efforts to address school shootings ranging from the Safe School Initiative to spending billions in fortification and security personnel, from enacting zero tolerance policies, gun control, and gun-free school zones at the state and local levels to President Obama’s 23 executive actions on gun control at the federal level. Although these policies may have helped, or at least not made the problem worse, school shootings remain a problem.

Statistically the chance of a child or young adult being killed at school is rare. Children are almost 100 times more likely to be murdered outside of school than in school. However, school shootings do happen. There have been 387 school shootings since 1992. The last fatal school-shooting incident that garnished major media attention and prompted calls for change in the US was in 2012 in Newtown (Sandy Hook Elementary). However, there have been more than 20 fatal school shootings since Newtown.Although school shootings are not necessarily increasing, they are still a huge cause for concern.

Many factors are involved in why school shootings happen and how we might go about preventing them. For example, gun control laws and gun free school zone laws are often debated. Most students who carried out school shootings got the guns from their own homes.This raises questions about gun safety and whether parents should be required to keep guns locked away from children or whether individual liberty is an overriding principal.

Bullying and mental health are a factor. An analysis of 45 related studies confirms that there is a correlation between involvement in bullying behavior, as a victim, bully, or bully-victim, and bringing weapons to school. In 2000, the US Secret Service reported that in 2/3 of the 37 school shootings that have occurred in 26 states since 1974, the attacker felt bullied or attacked prior to the event.

Zero Tolerance Policies 

In 1994, the Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) was passed as part of the Improving America’s Schools Act. The law requires states that want federal funding, to enact a law requiring local schools to expel, for a minimum of one year, “any student who is determined to have brought a firearm to school” (See 20 U.S.C. §1821(b)(1)). The National Center for Education Statistics notes that 94 percent of all schools have zero tolerance policies for weapons or firearms.

The use of school expulsion or suspension is the cornerstone of zero tolerance policies. The US Department of Education reports that there were 3,477 weapons-related expulsions for the 1998-99 school year, and 2,695 such expulsions for the 2006-07 school year (the most recent year for data).  This is not to say, however, that there has been a consistent decline as the second highest year for expulsions in that time frame was 2005-06 (3,028). The rates of suspension though are not indicative of whether or not expulsions are effective at preventing gun violence.

While investigations into the effectiveness of suspensions and expulsions for improving school safety are limited (surprisingly so considering they’ve been implemented for over 20 years), indirect data suggests that they are not effective at changing student behavior. For example, studies have found that up to 40 percent of school suspensions are due to repeat offenders. Additionally, zero tolerance policies disproportionately affect minority students; one study found that black students receive significantly harsher punishments for first time offenses than white students do.

Threat Assessment: A Better Alternative? 

Threat assessment is “ a structured group process used to evaluate the risk posed by a student or another person, typically as a response to an actual or perceived threat or concerning behavior.” Threat assessment uses a set of strategies or pathways to assess if a threat is credible, series, and likely to be carried out. Threat assessment, a common violence prevention approach for law enforcement, begins with an evaluation of the persons who may threaten harm, followed by an investigation designed to reduce violence.

The Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (V-STAG), also referred to as the Virginia Model for Student Threat Assessment, is a specific model, which focuses on problems such as bullying, teasing, and other forms of student conflict. This model follows a seven-step decision tree, the first three of which constitute a triage process of investigating a reported threat. The next four steps guide the threat assessment team through more thorough assessment and response based on the seriousness of the threat.

A number of studies have focused on the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (V-STAG), which is a specific method for schools to respondent to threats of violence without resorting to zero tolerance policies (See Cornell, et. al., 2004; Strong & Cornell, 2008; Cornell, Lorek, & Sheras, 2009;  and Allen, Cornell & Fan 2012). Together, these studies found that V-STAG resulted in less suspensions and expulsions, less alternative school placements, less bullying infractions, increased use of mental health and counseling services, and, so far, have resulted in no threats being carried out to completion. This means that threat assessment in general, and the V-STAG model in particular, is more successful at keeping students in school than zero tolerance policies. It also suggests that threat assessment places a greater emphasis on mental health and bullying, and on getting troubled students the help they need. Further, the fact that none of these threats in the above mentioned studies were carried out to completion should be celebrated.



Based on the available evidence, threat assessment, and particularly V-STAG, is more effective than the status quo. Will threat assessment completely solve school violence and result in zero school shootings ever? Probably not. But overall, it is a more sound policy than zero tolerance policies, which have been criticized as draconian, racially-biased, and ineffective. In sum, threat assessment is a viable alternative to zero tolerance policies that are not effective at preventing school shootings and are failing our children in many other ways.



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