A close friend called me recently, before the Uvalde, Texas, tragedy, to tell of his high school daughter who was deeply fearful of going to school and being shot. She didn’t want to go to school, and her internal torment was a very real form of PTSD and not at all irrational. None of us 40 and older has experienced such a fear. Many children today live with it.
He sought my advice as a former law enforcement professional, and I told him to let her stay home. Her education wouldn’t suffer as much as she would, anxiously wondering each day whether someone was going to burst into her classroom and start shooting.
Forget the parasitical politics that always jumps into the sidecar of these tragic school shootings and, instead, take a look at what the actual intelligence is telling us. When the distractions are filtered out and the facts are examined, the conclusion is clear: No child in our schools today is completely safe from being shot and killed while in the classroom. If that is an unacceptable risk to you as a parent, you should not be sending your children into these unsafe environments.
While there is no centralized official database, here’s what the best intelligence reveals: In the 20-plus years since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, more than 300,000 children have been exposed to shots fired in a school setting, resulting in more than 550 casualties.
For comparison sake, since 9/11, the number of people killed by terrorists on a commercial airliner is zero. That is because we have enacted policies and practices that have virtually eliminated such a risk. The intelligence tells us, therefore, that we as a nation have no tolerance for violence on an airplane but significant tolerance for shootings that target children in schools. In fact, schools are more dangerous now than they were 20 years ago. Last year, America experienced a record number of school shooting incidents, with this year on pace to match or surpass that.
The intelligence also shows that, in almost every case, the shooter is a young male who has emitted warning signals that he is about to act out violently. The number of troubled young males in society is increasing, not decreasing. Suicide rates among teens have skyrocketed in the past 20 years, along with prescriptions for antidepressants, which, for some, can lead to destructive behaviors. For whatever reason, society is producing more aggressively violent young men, and parents need to factor that in as a risk. We can debate the causes, but debate does nothing to stop the killing now.
Intelligence indicates that the saturation press coverage of school shootings inspires copycats to a degree that parents should anticipate additional shootings may occur following a highly publicized event such as that at Ross Elementary School. The names and images of school shooters become well-known, and that kind of notoriety is attractive to malformed young minds who feel isolated, picked on, powerless. Parents need to understand that the chance of copycats increases with each shooting, and factor that in as a risk.
There is intelligence that some school shooters had immersed themselves in violent, “point of view” video games where tactical maneuvers, target acquisition, and accuracy of fire skills are honed; some — even some very young shooters — have displayed remarkable prowess. These increasingly realistic games are proliferating among young people, not diminishing. They are, in a sense, virtual training programs for killing people with guns. Parents need to know that many of the students in their child’s school are playing these games regularly, and factor that in as a risk.
In other words, the intelligence tells us that there are a number of realities that make our schools unacceptably dangerous to our children right now. If someone can frame this as an acceptable risk — one more tolerable than a shooting on an airplane — that would be an interesting exercise. Good luck.
Our country has proven that it can stop gun violence on airplanes and in courthouses or government buildings, but it has decided not to expend similar efforts and resources to stop it in schools. Like it or not, this is America’s current policy.
One other thing that the intelligence indisputably reveals: National-level politicians are worthless in this conversation. With each sad event they repeat the same tired “Enough is enough” mantras. The evidence is clear — 20 years of sloganeering have done nothing to stop the killing. They will simply continue to push impossible-to-achieve measures like gun elimination or predictive mental health interventions, instead of first-order actions that will keep someone from getting inside a school with a gun and shooting.
The solution is achievable but ultimately will rest with parents who ignore the publicity-seeking big-name politicians and, instead, swarm their school boards and town councils, smothering them with demands to know their plan for ensuring that no one can get inside local schools with a gun and kill their children.
Fair warning, parents: The plans currently in place likely will be inadequate. We know this because shootings are increasing. Parents will be confronted with counter-arguments that school shootings are “extremely rare” and that schools shouldn’t be turned into super-max fortresses.
School shootings are only rare when they don’t happen to your kids. “Rare” means a willingness to accept a certain number of dead children. Twenty years of intelligence have shown that shootings can happen anywhere in the country, at any time, across all socio-economic strata — and the trend is not abating.
Communities that refuse to send their children to school until certain prudent, effective, achievable security measures are put in place will stand the best chance of actually solving this problem. This is a tough stance to take, but current “solutions” are obviously not effective enough and so stark demands are not out of order.
Parents shouldn’t settle for “rare.” They should demand “nonexistent” because, right now the intelligence is clear: It’s too dangerous to send your kids to school.
Kevin R. Brock is a former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He independently consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.