School security is a hot topic these days. I get many calls and e-mails asking my advice on how to stop the gun violence at schools. I’ve answered many probing questions. Should we hire armed guards? Should we arm all or some of our teachers? Should police officers be assigned to every school? Should we install metal detectors? Should we erect walls and fences around the school and search everyone who enters? Should the media downplay the shootings to discourage copycats? These are all valid questions but implementing the recommendations is unlikely to produce a long-term solution. However, putting guns in the hands of teachers is a scary concept and should not be considered.
Stop Gun Violence
The question of how to stop incidents of gun violence on campus may best be understood by looking at the connection between "who" is committing the violence, "where" the incidents occur, "who" are the intended victims, and "why". Think about it. These offenders are not gangsters, not drug dealers or street criminals. The incidents don’t seem to be racially motivated or hate crimes. The perpetrators were almost always registered students of the school.
The most common thread is the location…our high schools and middle schools. The shooters were almost always male, and to varying degrees not apart of the mainstream school social structure. Most were described as loners, the subject of bullying, and interested in guns or violent first-person shooter video games. In almost every case some other student or friend knew about their desire to shoot someone at the school but didn’t take it seriously and therefore didn’t report it.
Sure, we can make it more difficult to bring guns onto campus. But this will come at a cost of personal freedom. We can build a fortress-like school with higher fences, taller block walls, limit access to one gate, close the campus, install magnetometers and x-ray machines, and conduct pat downs and routine locker searches. We can add armed guards and police officers, add state-of-the-art video surveillance, and limit sport field activities. All of these security measures will be expensive and not likely to be supported by any school district for very long. In my opinion, these are not viable solutions for the long term.
Nature of the Violence
In almost every case, the shooters acted like they were on a suicide mission. They had to know they would be caught, injured or killed during the rampage. Despite this fact, the shooters made plans, prepared their armament, and attacked in broad daylight without concern for being identified. In my opinion, these shooters were looking for notoriety and wanted to become infamous by making some sort of twisted statement about their unhappy life. With this level of motivation, traditional school security measures will not be effective in preventing their attack.
Despondent students are nothing knew. School bullies have always been present. Class status conflicts have always been part of school life. There have always been distinctions made between the amounts of money parents had and bestowed on their children. There has always been drug or alcohol abuse at home or during school. There have always been abused children, parentless children, and children with varying degrees of mental illness or with discipline problems. Depressed students have been committing suicide for years but the media hardly ever focused on their personal plight because it was viewed a victimless. Today, students have developed a kamikaze-like philosophy with the desire to kill other people along with themselves.
What is the Solution?
Almost any radical security measure discussed above will have some effectiveness in preventing future violence but not consistently and for the long term. With the shooters being registered students at the school they will always be allowed access. Metal detectors and searches won’t stop the highly motivated shooters who are willing to run past or fire on the gatekeeper to get at their intended targets. Armed security or police can be effective but they can’t cover the entire campus and can be disabled as well. Just when you fortify the campus, the shooters can change their methods to include school parking lots, adjacent thoroughfares, shopping centers or arcades.
I predict this sick copycat trend will pass and the period will be recorded as a dark time in our history. What is needed now is increased awareness, both at home and at school. Some tightening of security is needed but in my experience the school districts will not support additional costs for long. Parents, teachers, and students need to communicate about the underlying issues and everyone needs to pay attention for the telltale signs of violence. Evidence of the potential for violence is often found in a student’s home, on their computer, in their notebooks or in their locker at school. Parents need to assess their need to have guns and ammunition immediately available to their children.
The time has come for students to condemn talk of gun activity and speak out about any such deviant behavior. When someone is carrying a gun or planning to bring a gun on campus usually other students know. Student hotlines should be created for anonymous reporting. Many times parents will observe a negative change in behavior of their children, but won’t inquire or investigate the suspicious activity…that needs to change through education and awareness. The media actually helps in this area. The media needs to downplay coverage and not glorify a school shooting incident. Many parents allow their children to surf the web everyday, without knowing how to supervise their activity…this may be our greatest challenge. Teachers are our messengers and have the forum to promote discussions about the social and moral impact of hate, violence, guns, and computer video games…that subject needs to be incorporated into the mainstream curricula.
For now, our students need more social awareness, parental interaction, and protection by our existing laws. For the long term, our society needs to figure out how to deal with the availability of guns, how to handle the programming content on the Internet, the proliferation of violent first-person shooter video games, and violence in movies. Children are our future and we need to help them find a balance between the rapidly changing technology and with traditional social values.