Keeping Our Schools Safe

February 20, 2019

For the last twenty years we have lived with the reality of school shootings. The failure of our leaders to act is having lasting consequences on millions of American students. We need meaningful action that keeps our schools safe—action that approaches the problem from all angles. Too often, our leaders present plans—such as arming teachers—that put kids in more danger, not less. We don’t have to settle for ineffective ideas. There are approaches that are proven effective, such as school-based intervention solutions, like threat assessment programs, that when combined with emergency response preparedness and comprehensive gun safety laws can work to intervene before shootings happen. For more information read our full report


Any Effective Strategy for Keeping our Schools Safe Must Consider What We Know About Mass Shootings and Gun Violence in our Schools.For six full years beginning in 2013, Everytown for Gun Safety collected detailed information on all incidents of gunfire on school grounds. Everytown used the following definition to define its research “Any time a gun discharges a live round inside (or into) a school building, or on (or onto) a school campus or grounds, where “school” refers to elementary, middle, and high schools — K-12 — as well as colleges and universities. From 2013 to 2018, Everytown identified 405 incidents of gunfire on school grounds. Of these, 260 occurred on the grounds of an elementary, middle, or high school, resulting in 109 deaths and 219 injuries. This analysis informs the lessons presented in this document. Analysis presented here reflects information related to gunfire on the grounds of K-12 schools only. More information is available at: https://everytownresearch.org/gunfire-in-school.

  • The majority of those discharging guns on school grounds— 56% — have a connection to the school. When you consider only active shooters, that number is nearly 80%.Everytown’s analysis of gunfire on school grounds revealed that across all forms of gun violence in America’s schools, shooters often have a connection to the school. Overall, 56 percent were associated with the school — they were either current or former students, staff, faculty, or school resource officers. Everytown was able to determine both the shooter’s intent and relationship to the school in 218 incidents. The New York Police Department specifically analyzed active shooter incidents from 1966 - 2016. Analysis finds that 79% of active shootings in schools involved shooters who were under 18; and were a current student or recent graduate of the school. New York City Police Department. Active shooters: Recommendation and analysis for risk mitigation. 2016. https://on.nyc.gov/2GlEbI1.
  • In up to 80% of incidents, shooters obtain their guns from home, their relative’s home or from friends.Everytown was able to identify the gun source in 51 percent of the incidents that involved shooters under 18 years old (a total of 100 shooters). Most of these shooters — 78 percent — obtained the gun(s) from their home or the homes of relatives or friends. Other analysis of school shootings consistently find that a clear majority of school shooters - between 68% and 80% - obtain their guns from family members, friends, or relatives. See United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education. The final report and findings of the safe school initiative: Implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States. https://bit.ly/2oFpIwa. Published May 2002. The study analyzed targeted school violence from 1974 through June 2000 finding that 68 percent of attackers acquired the gun(s) used in the incidents from their home or that of a relative. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Source of firearms used by students in school-associated violent deaths, United States, 1992-1999. MMWR Weekly. 2003; 52(09): 169-172. The study analyzed school-associated violent deaths between 1992 and 1999 finding that 79 percent of guns used were obtained from the shooter’s home or that of a friend or relative. Woodrow Cox J, Rich S. ‘The gun’s not in the closet.’ The Washington Post. August 1, 2018. https://wapo.st/2TyDnTW. The study analyzed acts of gun violence at primary and secondary schools involving shooters under the age of 18 since 1999 finding that of the 105 cases in which the gun’s source was identified, 80 percent were acquired from the child’s home or those of relatives or friends.
  • In most incidents of targeted school violence —93% — there are warning signs that cause others to be concerned. In as many as 81% of incidents other people are aware of the shooter’s plans in advance.The U.S. Secret Service found that in 93% of incidents the shooter exhibited behavior that caused others to be concerned and in 81% of incidents, at least one other person was aware of the shooter’s plans — most often a close friend. United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education. Prior knowledge of potential school-based violence: Information students learn may prevent a targeted attack. https://bit.ly/2MPrOoL. Published May 2008.
  • Gun violence in American schools has a disproportionate impact on students of color.Everytown found that among the 253 shooting incidents at K-12 schools where the racial demographic information of the student body was known, 64 percent occurred in majority-minority schools. Everytown gathered demographic information on the student population of each school included in the database for which data were available. A majorityminority school is defined as one in which one or more racial and/or ethnic minorities (relative to the U.S. population) comprise a majority of the student population.

Preventing Mass Shootings and School Gun Violence Requires a Multi-Faceted Plan That Starts With Tailored Gun Violence Prevention Policies.

A school safety regime that keeps guns out of the hands of people who should not have them starts with effective gun violence prevention laws and programs including:

  • Red Flag Laws: This policy empowers family members and law enforcement to get a court order to temporarily prevent a person from accessing guns. These laws can provide law enforcement an important tool in cases where a person who poses a risk to a school possesses, can purchase, or has access to firearms.
  • Responsible Storage & Child Access Prevention Laws: Responsible storage laws require people to store firearms responsibly to prevent unsupervised access to firearms. A subset of these laws, known as child access prevention laws, specifically target unsupervised access by minors.
  • Responsible Storage Public Awareness Programs: These programs, like the Moms Demand Action developed “Be SMART” program, promote awareness of responsible gun storage and can help create new norms that prevent unauthorized access to guns.
  • Raising the Minimum Age to Purchase All Semi-Automatic Firearms to 21: This policy can help block gun sales to teenagers who commit gun homicides at four times the rate of adults.Everytown for Gun Safety analysis; Uniform Crime Reporting Program: Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR), 2013-2017. Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. While the FBI SHR does not include data from the state of Florida for the years 2013-2017, Everytown obtained data directly from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and included the reported homicides in the analysis. Rates calculated using age-specific US Census Population Data, 2013-2017. Persons aged 18-20 made up 4 percent of the US population and represented 18 percent of all offenders in gun homicides. Adults aged 21 and over made up 73 percent of the population and 74 percent of all offenders in gun homicides. Analysis includes all offenders in single and multiple offender incidents. The Parkland, FL shooter could not have gone into a gun store and bought a handgun, but he legally bought an AR-15. Florida has since changed their law.Fla. Stat. § 790.065(13).
  • Background Checks: Requiring background checks on all gun sales can prevent teenagers and prohibited persons from circumventing the system and getting their hands on guns in an unlicensed sale online or at a gun show.

Threat Assessment Programs Can Help Schools Identify and Deescalate Dangerous Situations.

State legislators and schools should create and fund school-based threat assessment programs—like the Everytown and AFT-endorsed Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (VSTAG)Cornell DG, Sheras P. Guidelines for responding to student threats of violence. Sopris West. 2006.—which create multidisciplinary teams of school personnel that receive information about potential threats made by students, assess the nature of the threats, and design interventions to manage risk and prevent violence.

Effective Threat Assessment Programs:

  • Identify Threats and Promote Information Gathering by establishing mechanisms, such as tip lines or social media monitoring, to identify potential threats.
  • Address Student Access to Guns as part of any intervention plan, a practice recommended by the U.S. Secret Service.National Threat Assessment Center. Enhancing school safety using a threat assessment model: An operational guide for preventing targeted school violence. United States Secret Service and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. https://bit.ly/2NKlwqD. Published July 2018.x
  • Invest in school-based mental health services by hiring a sufficient number of school psychologists, school social workers, and school counselors (all of whom operate above recommended rations; school counselors, for example, according to recent data manage caseloads of about 482 students each, a ratio far higher than recommended best practices).National Association for College Admission Counseling, American School Counselor Association. State-by-state student-to-counselor ratio report: 10-year trends. https://bit.ly/2Ipw77Y.

Threat Assessment Programs work:

Several studies have found that schools that have used threat assessment programs see as few as 0.5 to 3.5% of students attempt to or carry out their threat of violence— none of them being serious threats to kill, shoot, or seriously injure someone.

Evidence suggests that the VSTAG program is an effective tool for preventing school violence and VSTAG is listed on the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices.

  • The establishment of a behavioral threat assessment program is a widely recommended strategy for preventing school violence.See e.g, United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education. Threat assessment in schools: A guide to managing threatening situations and to creating safe school climates. https://bit.ly/2o1nWG8. Published May 2002; National Threat Assessment Center. Enhancing school safety using a threat assessment model: An operational guide for preventing targeted school violence. United States Secret Service and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. https://bit.ly/2NKlwqD. Published July 2018.
  • Several studies have found that schools that have used threat assessment programs see as few as 0.5 to 3.5% of students attempt to or carry out their threat of violence—none of them being serious threats to kill, shoot, or seriously injure someone.Cornell, D., Maeng, J., Burnette, A.G., Jia, Y., Huang, F., Konold, T., Datta, P., Malone, M., Meyer, P. (2017). Student threat assessment as a standard school safety practice: Results from a statewide implementation Study; Cornell, D., Maeng, J., Burnette, A.G., Datta, P., Huang, F., & Jia, Y. (2016). Threat Assessment in Virginia Schools: Technical Report of the Threat Assessment Survey for 2014-2015. Charlottesville, VA: Curry School of Education, University of Virginia; Cornell, D., Allen, K., & Fan, X. (2012). A randomized controlled study of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines in grades K-12. School Psychology Review, 41, 100-115.
  • Studies show that schools with VSTAG threat assessment programs see fewer suspensions, expulsions, and lead to fewer arrests.Id.
  • Importantly, studies have shown that VSTAG threat assessment programs generally do not have a disproportionate impact on students of color.Id. Schools should collect their own data to ensure that local threat assessment programs do not disproportionately impact students of color or students with disabilities.

Schools should be provided funding to implement Access Control Measures, Install Interior Door Locks, and Consider if Other Security Enhancements are Appropriate

School safety expertsSandy Hook Advisory Commission. Final report of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission presented to Governor Dannel P. Malloy, State of Connecticut. https://bit.ly/1C5aeU3. Published March 6, 2015. recommend that schools implement the following basic security measures to create effective intervention points when a shooter is targeting a school:

  • Access Control: Measures like single access points, fencing, or external door locks that prevent unauthorized access to schools.
  • Interior Door Locks: Interior door locks enable educators to lock out shooters and seal classrooms without exposing themselves to danger by stepping into hallways and the line of fire.

Schools should also consider other security upgrades in light of the cultural, geographic and demographic needs of a school community.

Schools Should Establish Clear Emergency Response Plans.

Security experts, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recommend that school districts have an emergency plan in place in the unlikely event a tragedy does occur.U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Office of Safe and Healthy Students. Guide for developing high-quality school emergency operations plans. https://bit.ly/2Gnz764. Published June 2013.

These plans should help facilitate communication between school employees, law enforcement, and other first responders. These plans should also provide clear guidance and training on what staff should do in case of an emergency.

  • Schools should consider technology to foster communication during emergencies. For example, one product, the Safety Alerts for Education (S.A.F.E), is a tool endorsed by security experts that offers a no cost way for schools to communicate with law enforcement, students and staff during emergencies.For more information, see: http://www.ping4.com/safety-alerts-foreducation.

However, there is growing concern that active shooter drills can have negative impacts on student well-being and development.Rich S, Cox JW. School lockdowns: How many American children have hidden from gun violence? Washington Post. December 26, 2018. https://wapo.st/2Sb0bML. Leaders should carefully assess whether active shooter drills are appropriate for students.

Create Safe and Equitable Schools.

School communities must look inside their schools to make sure they are encouraging effective partnerships between students and adults while also looking externally to ensure that they are a key community resource. Schools should:

  • Review discipline practices and ensure threat assessment programs are not adversely contributing to school discipline;
  • Work to become “community schools” by building effective community partnerships that provides services that support students, families, and neighborhoods; and
  • When employing school resource officers (SROs), schools should take steps to build relationships between communities and law enforcement.
    • Everytown and AFT believe that the employment of SROs is a local decision. However, schools that choose to employ SROs should consider the federal government’s SECURe rubric that provides a framework for effective employment of SROs.U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Justice. Safe school-based enforcement through collaboration, understanding, and respect (SECURe) local implementation rubric. https://bit.ly/2BlkBZ2.

Arming Teachers Is Not an Effective Strategy for Preventing Gun Violence in Schools.

Even some of the most highly trained law enforcement officers in the country, those of the New York City Police Department, see their ability to shoot accurately decrease significantly when engaged in gunfights with perpetrators.

Research casts significant doubt on the ability of teachers to stop active shooters:

  • Law enforcement officers receive an average of 840 hours of basic training including 168 hours of training on weapons, self-defense, and the use of force.Reaves BA. State and local law enforcement training academies, 2013. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. https://bit.ly/2pg0whI. Published July 2016. In states that have laws aimed at arming school personnel, school staff receive significantly less training, in some of these states there is no minimum training required at all.
  • Even some of the most highly trained law enforcement officers in the country, those of the New York City Police Department, see their ability to shoot accurately decrease significantly when engaged in gunfights with perpetrators.Rostker B. D, Hanser L. M, Hix W. M, Jensen C, & Morral A. R. Evaluation of the New York City Police Department firearm training and firearm-discharge review process. Rand Corporation. 2008.

Armed civilians complicate law enforcement response to active shooter incident because in the words of then-Dallas police Chief David Brown: “We don’t know who the good guy is versus the bad guy when everyone starts shooting.”Hennessy-Fiske M. Dallas police chief: Open carry makes things confusing during mass shootings. Los Angeles Times. July 11, 2016. https://lat.ms/2GpxGUw.