Americans have been living with the reality of school shootings for 20 years.
In that time, educators have hardened schools’ defenses with bulletproof entrances, active shooter training, security consultants and a host of sometimes creative, sometimes desperate safety solutions: from teacher-invented door-jamming devices to front-office iris scanners to $120 “ballistic panels” for children’s backpacks.
Fears came full-circle this week: A 15-year-old faces two counts of murder and 12 counts of first-degree assault after police said he killed two and wounded more than a dozen others in a shooting spree at a rural Kentucky high school.
Tuesday’s attack, the third at or near a U.S. school in the past few days, took place just 35 miles from a similar one that happened almost exactly 20 years earlier: the Dec. 1, 1997, shooting at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky.
In that shooting, 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on an early-morning prayer group, killing three and injuring four. The shocking attack — Carneal had ridden to school with his sister, a pistol stashed in his backpack — would help usher in a generation of fears about students killing classmates in spectacular fashion.
What often goes unnoticed in the wake of such shootings is an enduring, quiet truth, said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University: “Schools are safe. They’ve been safe for a long time. They remain safe.”
Though the odds of any child being the victim of a school shooting are extremely long, he said, the only way to truly prevent your child from such an attack “is to home-school your kid.”
The truth of the matter, he said, is that for many kids, school is “the safest place for them, because they have structure.” Their neighborhood — even their home — may well be a violent, uncertain or unsafe place. For many students, school offers a respite, not a threat.
How vulnerable are kids?
Fox has long maintained that school shootings are overstated in the public imagination. Research shows that both their frequency and body count have actually dropped over the past 20-plus years. Young people, he notes, are far more likely to die off school grounds — in a homicide, a fall, a firearm accident, a drowning or even while riding a bicycle — than they are in a school attack.
Researching a forthcoming book, Fox found that in the years from 1999 to 2013, homicides, bicycle accidents, firearm accidents, falls and swimming pool drownings accounted for 31,827 of the total 32,464 reported deaths. Deaths in school shootings numbered 154, or fewer than 0.5%.
Put another way, a young person in the U.S. is nearly 11 times as likely to die in a swimming pool than in a school shooting. Few public officials would say pools are doing a poor job protecting swimmers, but the statistics suggest that we need “more lifeguards at pools, as opposed to guards at schools,” Fox said.
All the same, as recently as 2013, more than two-thirds of students reported that their schools had security cameras, locked doors and police or security guards on duty during the school day. About half of students said their school ran locker checks, presumably to uncover weapons.
Fox said parental pressure often pushes schools to engage in active shooter drills, evacuations and more extreme exercises — even though few adults would tolerate fortress-like workplaces or stressful emergency drills in their everyday lives. If every time you boarded a plane the flight attendants asked you to practice evacuating the aircraft from an inflatable emergency slide, he said, “that would be very upsetting” to travelers.
Yet we tolerate drills that could well scare the heck out of young people, he said. “I’m not sure how much drilling you need for kids to run. The problem with drills is that they can be very traumatizing.”
In one type of self-defense training, coaches now drill students to ambush a shooter en masse and throw hard objects at the shooter’s head: One Alabama middle school in 2015 sent letters home to parents asking them to send children the following day with “a canned food item” weighing eight ounces.
“We realize at first this may seem odd,” administrators said, “however, it is a practice that would catch an intruder off-guard. The canned food item could stun the intruder or even knock him out until the police arrive. The canned food item will give the students a sense of empowerment to protect themselves and will make them feel secure in case an intruder enters their classroom.”
The letter concluded, “We hope the canned food items will never be used or needed, but it is best to be prepared.” Unused items, it said, would be donated to a food pantry at the end of the school year.
In another case, a high school in Massachusetts in 2013 noted that each science class was “equipped with cans of soup” to be thrown at an intruder, but that students and teachers had also come up with “more creative ways” to handle attackers by proposing to throw textbooks, chairs, calculators and “other heavy classroom materials.”
An English teacher suggested equipping each student with a hardcover edition of the French novel Madame Bovary, while a math teacher placed filing cabinets by the door to act as barricades.
A chemistry teacher suggested taking “the road less traveled” while evacuating, telling students that awareness of their surroundings “can ultimately make the difference between life and death in these situations.”
Drills are common
Police in Kentucky said this week that Marshall County High School staff and some students had practiced how to respond to a school shooter before Tuesday’s shooting. Kentucky State Police said they’ve sent troopers to classrooms since 2013.
Trooper Jody Cash told reporters Tuesday that, “in the area of what-ifs that’s hard to tell (if the training worked).”
Authorities in New Mexico last month said an “active shooter alert” saved lives in a Dec. 7 shooting at Aztec High School — all New Mexico schools are required to have a “Safe Schools” plan, and San Juan County organizes a committee that facilitates training and responses between districts and law enforcement.
In the Dec. 7 attack, an active shooter alert went out through the school, while an emergency signal alerted emergency dispatch agencies. It also alerted other school districts in the area, which locked down as well.
The communications “saved lives,” said county Emergency Manager Mike Mestas, who noted that in the past few years Aztec administrators “got so proficient in locking down their school, it saved a lot of lives in this particular incident.”
But such drills can detract from the climate of safety that schools aim to project, Fox, the Northeastern University criminologist, said. “If you surround kids with all sorts of security, it sends a message: ‘There are bad guys out to get you.'”
He said a clever shooter could easily outsmart even a well-prepared school. In a 1998 shooting at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Ark., two shooters ages 11 and 13 simply pulled a fire alarm and waited from a perch in the woods, picking off students as they filed out of the school. Four students and a teacher died in that attack.
Even solutions that seem sensible, such as classroom doors that lock from the inside, could have unintended consequences, such as predators trapping students inside, Fox said.
He suggested that schools enact “invisible” security measures that students can’t detect, such as classroom acoustic devices that detect gunshots and alert police. He also suggested that schools conduct emergency drills for teachers and staff only — after school or on weekends.
“All you really need the kids to know is that if something happens, listen to your teacher,” he said.