There have been a record 222 shootings incidents at US schools this year. And there are five things that most of them have in common.
Whenever a school shooting takes place like the one at Oxford High School in suburban Detroit on November 30, 2021, it is typically followed by a familiar chorus of questions.
How could such a thing happen? Why doesn’t the government do more to stop these shootings from occurring?
Those questions are even more urgent in light of the fact that the shooting at Oxford High School was one of 222 school shootings in 2021, an all-time high, according to the Center for Homeland Defence and Security’s K-12 School Shooting Database. That’s over 100 more school shootings in 2021 than in 2019 or 2018, respectively the second- and third-worst years on record.
In the Oxford High School case, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley armed with a semiautomatic handgun is accused of killing four students and injuring six others and a teacher.
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The question now is how to translate these findings into policy and practice in order to prevent the next school shooting.
Trouble from the start
The data we use to track school shootings is a comprehensive database that includes information on “each and every instance a gun is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time of day, or day of week” going back to 1970.
Working with its co-creator, David Riedman, we uncovered a record 151 school shooting threats in the “back-to-school” month of September 2021, up from a three-year average of 29. Actual school shootings also more than doubled during September 2021 compared with the same month in previous years.
There were 55 school shootings in September 2021, up from 24 in September 2020 and 14 in September 2019. But the school carnage began well before the 2021 school year got underway for most students, as evidenced in the Aug. 13 fatal shooting of 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove at Washington Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
One school in Phoenix, Arizona, banned backpacks and food deliveries after a student was shot in the bathroom on Nov. 29. The Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York State offered remote learning following two separate shooting incidents near its schools on Nov. 22. Schools across the country are increasing safety measures, cancelling classes, even using police escorts for students coming onto campus.
In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in November 2021, we searched public records on 170 mass shooters who killed four or more people from 1966 to 2019 for any communication of intent to do harm. That includes posting a threat on social media or telegraphing future violence to a loved one in person. We found that 79 mass shooters – nearly half of them – leaked their plans in advance. Communication was most common among school shooters and younger shooters. The fact it was most strongly associated with suicidal tendencies or attempts, as well as prior mental health counselling, suggests it may best be characterised as a cry for help.
Threats of violence circulated on campus before the Oxford High School shooting, with some students staying home out of an abundance of caution. There will be questions now about whether threats were disclosed to authorities and handled appropriately, in ways consistent with best practices on threat assessment or what we like to call “crisis response” systems. Our research is clear that all threats must be investigated and treated seriously as an opportunity for real intervention.
There are further implications from our research. If school shooters are nearly always students of the school, educators and others who work with them need training to identify a student in crisis and how to report something they see or hear indicative of violent intent.
Schools also need counsellors, social workers and other resources so they can respond appropriately and holistically to students in crisis. This means not unduly punishing students with expulsion or criminal charges – things that could escalate the crisis or any grievance with the institution.
School shootings are not inevitable. They’re preventable. But practitioners and policymakers must act quickly because each school shooting feeds the cycle for the next one, causing harm far beyond that which is measured in lives lost. We believe the steps outlined above can help address that harm, promoting school security while safeguarding student wellbeing.