Could anyone have stopped this? That's one of the biggest questions for schools and educators as the nation takes in the facts of the shooting in Parkland, Fla., that has left 17 dead and 23 injured.
While the U.S. remains a global outlier by far when it comes to mass shootings, and owns 42 percent of the world's guns, the fact is that most schools in the country have taken steps to prepare for this kind of threat.
Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, schools have changed the way they respond to both potential threats and actual attacks. And they've done so even without coordinated federal oversight or much in the way of dedicated resources, either for training, safety or broader prevention.
There is no one profile of those who cause violent deaths in schools, other than the fact that they tend to be male. In addition, no federal law requires K-12 schools to report violent crimes, which means there is no central repository of such reports. (There is such a law for colleges and universities).
The National School Safety Center, a nonprofit, has compiled a list of the following pattern of behaviors from published reports of students and former students who have caused violent school deaths, which include:
- Violent temper
- Has brought a weapon to school
- Serious disciplinary problems
- Fringe of his peer group
- Bullies peers or is an abusive partner
- Preoccupied with weapons
- Has been expelled from school
- Cruelty to animals
- Lack of family supervision
- Prefers violent themes in media
- Depressed or suicidal
From what we know about the alleged perpetrator in Florida, so far, he satisfies almost every one of these. And of course these indicators often show up on social media these days. As they did here.
Schools' ability to respond
What we also know so far in Florida is that the school seemed to take this student's behaviors very seriously. He was expelled for disciplinary reasons.
Not every young person who displays these behaviors is an imminent threat to the public. There is no 1-to-1 correlation between any mental health issue and criminal behavior. In fact, people struggling with mental health issues are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence.
However, what each of these red flags has in common are clear indicators of someone who needs mental health intervention and support. But there is a dearth of resources for that.
One in 5 K-12 students in the United States has a mental health problem, as we've reported. But 4 in 5 of those problems go untreated.
In part that may be because, on average nationwide, each school counselor is responsible for nearly 500 students. And there is just one school psychologist for every 1,400 students.
They don't always make the headlines, but in at least 21 cases since 2001, family members, classmates or school authorities have reported young people who seem to be planning school attacks. The details of these cases are eerily similar: a stockpile of weapons, maps, a threat written in a school assignment or posted on social media. The reports have led to charges as serious as attempted murder.
Just this week, in Everett, Wash., a grandmother reported her 18-year-old grandson to police. She showed the officers a journal that allegedly included detailed plans of different weapons.
And exactly 17 years before Parkland, on Valentine's Day, 2001, an 18-year-old was arrested at school in Elmira, NY. According to The New York Times:
[A] senior at Southside High School, passed a disturbing note to another student. That student gave the note to a teacher, who alerted school administrators. A police officer was dispatched ...
The officer found him in the school cafeteria, armed with a .22-caliber Ruger semiautomatic, the police said. Beside him was a duffel bag crammed with 14 pipe bombs, 3 carbon dioxide cartridge bombs filled with gunpowder, one propane bomb and a sawed-off shotgun with several rounds of pellets.
Prevention can be looked at through a broader lens too. There's a growing awareness that schools do have a responsibility over their social and emotional climate, and that successful interventions can save lives in multiple ways.
The new federal education law requires states to report data related to school climate and safety. Things like: how safe students feel at school, the prevalence of fights, and even suicidal thoughts.
And researchers say that, when this data is reported, it can help target whole-school interventions.
There is solid evidence backing approaches like restorative justice, social and emotional curricula, wraparound mental health services and networks of referrals. These big-picture public health approaches can reduce bullying, suicidal ideas and discrimination as well as, potentially, school violence. But it all takes money and training to do well.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
After yesterday's school shooting in Parkland, Fla., many people are asking whether anyone could have prevented the attack. Most American schools have taken steps to prepare for this kind of threat since the Columbine massacre in 1999, and they've done it without federal oversight or much in the way of dedicated resources.
Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team joins us now to talk about how schools around the country are responding to threats of a mass shooter. Hi, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Let's start with warning signs that teachers and school administrators might look for before an incident like this.
KAMENETZ: So we should caution that there's no one profile of a school shooter. But the National School Safety Center, which is a nonprofit, has compiled a list of a pattern of behaviors that we can see from published reports such as exhibiting a violent temper, someone who's brought a weapon to school, being a bully or perhaps a domestically violent or abusive partner, someone who's preoccupied with weapons, has been expelled from school, cruelty to animals and, finally, preferring violent themes in their media. And of course from what we know about the perpetrator in Florida, he does satisfy almost every one of these indicators. And of course these indicators do these days often show up on social media, as they did here.
SHAPIRO: But there must be a lot of violent, alienated, angry, depressed bullies who don't turn out to be mass murderers, right?
KAMENETZ: Oh, my gosh, absolutely. People suffering from mental health issues are not more likely to be violent. There's not a 1 to 1 correlation here. In fact, people suffering from mental health issues are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes rather than perpetrators. That said, these are red flags that from a public health standpoint people in a school community can and should be responding to in terms of their responsibility toward making sure that people get help and intervention.
SHAPIRO: And educators that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did respond to the warning signs in this student. Tell us what they did.
KAMENETZ: Well, that is the really frustrating part because it seems in this case that the school did almost everything right by the book. They took these indicators seriously. They apparently expelled him. There are reports that there were warnings about this student. That said, of course there is a dearth of resources for dealing with students who have mental health issues on campus. We reported earlier this year that 1 in 5 students has a mental health problem in K-12. And yet there is very few school counselors and school psychologists. On average there is about one school counselor for every 500 students and just one school psychologist for every 1,400 students nationwide.
SHAPIRO: So as you said, the frustrating part is the school saw the warning signs. They did what they were told to do, and yet this shooting happened. So where's the disconnect?
KAMENETZ: Well, I mean, you know, schools can only do so much, right? And we have a mental health system. It's more of a patchwork than it is a system, in fact. And the irony is that, you know, expelling a student from school can sometimes cut them off from the ability to access resources.
SHAPIRO: When a school does expel a problematic student, is there any way to keep track of that student and make sure they're not spiraling into something that could lead to violence?
KAMENETZ: In most cities, no. Unfortunately expulsion is a step along a path for many students that leads to other involvement in crime, perhaps unemployment and mental health issues. And that's exactly why some school safety experts and public health experts are focusing on the idea of reducing what's called exclusionary discipline. Of course that leaves schools with the really hard question of how to deal with students who may present a threat to others.
SHAPIRO: As we said, there has not been federal policy, federal funding. Do you expect that there could be a more national approach to these issues in schools?
KAMENETZ: Well, you know, it's hard to say that there's any silver lining in an incident like this. But, you know, the new federal education law that is on the books does require states to at least report data that's related to school climate and safety. And given that information, what researchers I've talked to say is that we could then target whole school interventions. And those can really work - things like restorative justice, social and emotional curricula, wraparound mental health services and networks of referrals. And those kinds of approaches, you know - when taken as a whole, they're a public health approach to this kind of risk. And it can in fact reduce violence in multiple ways.
SHAPIRO: Anya, thanks a lot.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ari.
SHAPIRO: That's Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team.
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