How To Stop Shootings and Gun Violence in Schools
A Plan to Keep Students Safe
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On May 24, 2022, a gunman shot and killed at least 21 victims—including 19 children and two teachers—and wounded at least 17 others at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, a predominantly Latinx community.1“Uvalde School Shooting,” Texas Tribune, accessed August 11, 2022, https://www.texastribune.org/series/uvalde-texas-school-shooting/.
School is the last place where kids should have to worry about gun violence. Our children deserve better. Our country deserves better.
For the last 20 years, students, educators, and parents have lived with the reality of increasingly frequent school shootings. The worst period for this violence has been in the 2021–2022 school year, which saw nearly quadruple the average number of gunfire incidents since 2013. From an average of 49 incidents in every school year since 2013, this past school year saw 193 incidents of gunfire on the grounds of preschools and K–12 schools.2Everytown for Gun Safety collects information on an ongoing basis on all incidents where a gun was discharged in or onto a school’s campus or grounds, using news reports from reputable media sources and verifying these incidents with an independent research firm. School year defined as August 1 to May 31. Meanwhile, America’s gun violence epidemic, in the form of mass shootings, gun homicides and suicides, and unintentional shootings, has been infecting America’s schools. The failure to address the root causes of school gun violence from all angles has lasting consequences for millions of American children.
We need meaningful actions to keep our schools and surrounding communities safe, actions that address what we know about gun violence in America’s schools. It’s time for our leaders to adopt a multifaceted approach that provides school communities with the tools they need to prevent school-based gun violence. This includes using the billions of dollars available in the recently passed Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to invest in proven solutions to keep schools safe from violence. This report focuses on approaches that have been proven most effective, such as keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them in the first place, fostering safe and trusting school environments, crisis intervention programs, access and lock upgrades, and trauma-informed emergency planning. Without a doubt, schools need to take the necessary steps to be safe places for educators and students.
We can’t let risky ideas, like arming teachers, dominate the debate. An armed teacher cannot transform into a specially trained law enforcement officer in a moment of extreme duress and confusion. In reality, an untrained, armed teacher introduces risks to student safety on a daily basis. Schools may choose to have security personnel to intervene in violent and dangerous situations, but those personnel must have a limited role and be carefully selected and trained in order to limit undue harm to students, particularly students of color who have disproportionately suffered from over-policing.
In partnership with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA)—two of the largest education-related member organizations collectively representing millions of teachers, school personnel, and administrators—Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund (Everytown) is working to ensure our approach to safer schools is driven by evidence, expertise, and care.
Key recommendations of this report are as follows:
- Enact and Enforce Secure Firearm Storage Laws
- Pass Extreme Risk Laws
- Raise the Age to Purchase Semi-automatic Firearms
- Require Background Checks on All Gun Sales
- Foster a Safe and Trusting School Climate
- Build a Culture of Secure Gun Storage
- Create Evidence-Based Crisis Assessment/Prevention Programs in Schools
- Implement Expert-Endorsed School Security Upgrades: Entry Control and Locks
- Initiate Trauma-Informed Emergency Planning
- Avoid Practices That Can Cause Harm and Traumatize Students
In this report, the nation’s largest education unions and its largest gun safety organization are joining together to present a plan that combines school-based intervention strategies with carefully tailored gun safety policies.
Using data to present the full picture of what gun violence on school grounds looks like and drawing upon research from school safety experts, Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA have crafted a comprehensive plan focusing on interventions to prevent mass shooting incidents and help end gun violence in America’s schools.
The aim of this report is threefold:
1. Paint a Detailed Picture of What Gun Violence in America’s Schools Looks Like
Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA want to provide policymakers and the public with an understanding of how gun violence impacts America’s schools. We analyze information that Everytown has collected on gun violence on school grounds in addition to research from other respected organizations. Through this data and analysis, we have learned the following: Those committing gun violence on school grounds, especially active shooters, often are connected to the school. Guns used in school-based violence generally come from the shooter’s home or the homes of family or friends. Shooters nearly always exhibit warning signs of potential violence that concern people around them. Gun violence in America’s schools has a disproportionate impact on students of color.
2. Outline a Plan to Prevent Gun Violence in Schools
The report provides a proactive plan to prevent active shooter incidents and, more broadly, address gun violence in all its forms in America’s schools. Using what we know about school gun violence, our organizations have put together a plan that focuses on intervening before violence occurs. These solutions work hand in hand to foster safe and nurturing schools, to address violence at its earliest stages, and to block easy access to firearms by those who would do harm.
The first part of this plan focuses on preventing shooters from getting their hands on guns by enacting sensible laws, including secure firearm storage laws and practices, to address the primary source of guns used in school gun violence (home); Extreme Risk laws, so that law enforcement and family members can act on warning signs of violence and temporarily prevent access to firearms; raising the age to purchase semi-automatic firearms to 21; and requiring background checks on all gun sales so that minors and people with dangerous histories can’t evade gun laws.
The second part of the plan focuses on expert-endorsed actions that schools can take. These solutions empower educators and law enforcement to intervene to address warning signs of violence, to provide the support that students in crisis need, and to keep shooters out of schools. These actions must be taken with due consideration for potential racial disparities and ensure that students of color or with disabilities are not negatively affected. They include fostering safe and trusting school environments that can prevent violent incidents, creating evidence-based crisis intervention programs in schools to identify and support students who may be in crisis, implementing evidence-based security upgrades to prevent shooters’ access to schools and classrooms, and initiating trauma-informed emergency planning protocols so that staff can secure schools and law enforcement can respond quickly.
3. Educate Decisionmakers on Practices That Can Cause Harm and Traumatize Students
Third, this report provides an overview of several practices that research shows are ineffective in preventing school gun violence or protecting the school community when shootings do occur, while introducing new risks and causing harm to students and school communities. We share the desire to respond to unthinkable tragedy with strong solutions. But as this report details, arming teachers is an ineffective and risky approach that does not stop gun violence in our schools. A wealth of research demonstrates that allowing teachers to carry guns in schools increases the everyday risks to students. A second practice, frequent school shooter drills involving students, particularly those that simulate a real shooting, are having measurable impacts on the stress and anxiety levels of students, parents, and educators alike. Finally, the traditional model of law enforcement working in schools has not been shown to reduce school shootings or gun incidents, but the presence of law enforcement has played a heavy role in criminalizing students, particularly students of color, and can have a negative impact on learning outcomes for all students. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA urge our leaders to instead adopt solutions that are proven to address what we know about school gun violence.
A Detailed Picture of Gun Violence in America’s Schools
Everytown’s database of Gunfire on School Grounds details the myriad ways in which gun violence manifests in America’s schools. Following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Everytown began tracking all cases of gunfire on school grounds in order to build a detailed national database to include all scenarios when a gun discharges a live round inside or into a school building, or onto a school campus or grounds. The database includes preschools; elementary, middle, and high schools; and colleges and universities.3Everytown collects detailed information on an ongoing basis on all incidents where a gun was discharged in or onto a school campus or grounds, including demographic details of shooters and victims, the shooter’s or shooters’ intention, location, school population and racial demographic, and, where available, the original source of the firearm. To gather this material, Everytown relies on news reports from reputable media sources. Where necessary, inquiries are made to law enforcement and school officials. All incidents used in this report were confirmed by an independent research firm. In addition, where appropriate, Everytown used publicly available databases and studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and the New York City Police Department to supplement original analyses and findings. Preschools include daycare.
What Happened in 2021?
As students returned to in-person learning in the fall of 2021, schools saw a sharp increase in the number of incidents of gunfire on school grounds. The 2021–2022 school year had the highest number of incidents in preschools and K–12 schools since Everytown began tracking school gun violence in 2013.
Between August 1, 2021, and May 31, 2022, there were 193 incidents of gunfire at preschools and K–12 schools—nearly four times the average during these months in all other years. These incidents left 59 people shot and killed and 138 people shot and wounded. At least six in 10 of the victims killed (59%) and four in 10 of the victims wounded (42%) were current or former students of the school where the gunfire occurred.
Gunfire at Preschools and K-12 by School Year
From 2013 through 2021, Everytown identified a total of 848 incidents of gunfire on school grounds. Of these incidents, 573 occurred on the grounds of a preschool, elementary, middle, or high school,4Everytown’s Gunfire on School Grounds database includes 275 incidents on the campuses of colleges and universities during this time frame. These incidents were excluded from analyses in order to focus on gunfire on preschools and K–12 school grounds. resulting in 188 deaths and 392 people wounded. Nearly half (at least 46 percent) of the victims in these incidents were students. While Everytown’s database includes gunfire on the grounds of higher-education institutions, for the purposes of this report all numbers and analyses reflect only those incidents that occurred on the grounds of preschools and K–12 schools.
This analysis shows that mass shootings (in which four or more people are shot and killed, not including the shooter) on school grounds—like the incidents at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Santa Fe High School, Marysville Pilchuck High School, and, in November 2021, Oxford High School—are not common. They represent less than 1 percent of overall school gun violence incidents.5Between 2013 and 2021, four incidents out of 573 total resulted in more than four people being shot and killed in an incident of gunfire on school grounds. Because the period for this analysis ends in 2021, the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is not counted here. However, these incidents account for a disproportionate share of the overall deaths and of people wounded from school gun violence. Moreover, these mass shootings are imposing trauma on a generation of students and communities.
The analysis also demonstrates that gun violence other than mass shootings is occurring in our schools with distressing frequency. All of these incidents of gun violence, regardless of their intent or victim count, compromise the safety of our schools—safety that directly impacts learning outcomes and the emotional and social development of our students.6Dewey G. Cornell and Matthew J. Mayer, “Why Do School Order and Safety Matter?,” Educational Researcher 39, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 7–15, https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X09357616. A growing body of research shows that the lingering trauma from exposure to gun violence affects everything from the ability to maintain attention7Patrick T. Sharkey et al., “The Effect of Local Violence on Children’s Attention and Impulse Control,” American Journal of Public Health 102, no. 12 (December 2012): 2287–93, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2012.300789. to overall enrollment numbers and performance on standardized tests.8Louis-Philippe Beland and Dongwoo Kim, “The Effect of High School Shootings on Schools and Student Performance,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 38, no. 1 (March 2016): 113–26, https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373715590683. To address all incidents of gun violence at schools and their detrimental effects, a broader platform of solutions is required.
Tracking Gunfire on School Grounds Starting in 2013
Incidents where guns are fired on school grounds come about as a result of various situations, ranging from homicides and assaults to unintentional shootings, suicide deaths or attempts, and mass shootings.9The “Other” intent category shown in the graphics include those incidents in which a firearm was discharged into the air, discharged but harm was caused to a person through other means, or discharged with intent to damage buildings or other property; incidents where the intent of the shooter is unknown or unclear; and incidents where law enforcement, school resource officers, or school security shot someone in a case where that victim did not harm others with a gun. These 144 incidents resulted in 54 people shot, 20 fatally.
Gunfire on School Grounds: Incidents By Intent
- Gun Homicides and Nonfatal Gun Assaults: Over half of the gun violence incidents in schools (53 percent) are homicides, nonfatal assaults, or attempted assaults. These types of gunfire on school grounds can emerge from a range of causes, such as arguments that escalated, acts of domestic violence, parking lot altercations, and robberies where the school was an unfortunate backdrop.
Between 2013 and 2021, there were 302 incidents of homicides, nonfatal assaults, and attempted assaults with a firearm on school grounds resulting in at least 361 victims: 96 deaths and 265 people shot and wounded. At least 133 of the victims were students at the time.
- Mass Shootings: Everytown identified four mass shootings—incidents where a shooter killed four or more people—in a preschool or K–12 school between 2013 and 2021.10Between 2013 and 2021, mass shootings occurred at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Washington; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas; and Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan. These shootings resulted in at least 73 victims shot, 35 fatally. Of them, at least 66 (90 percent) were students at the time. Because the period for this analysis ends in 2021, the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is not counted here. While mass shootings in schools are rare,11This aligns with research from other organizations that have developed comparable databases of incidents in schools. The Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) at the Naval Postgraduate School, for example, maintains a public database of gun violence incidents in K–12 schools dating back to 1970. According to the CHDS database, 12 mass shootings that resulted in the deaths of four or more people not including the shooter occurred on school grounds. The CHDS database also includes more than 1,900 other incidents of school gun violence that occurred over the same time period. Center for Homeland Defense and Security, K–12 School Shooting Database, https://www.chds.us/ssdb/. they accounted for about a fifth (19 percent) of overall gun deaths and 10 percent of all people shot and wounded in schools in the period from 2013 through 2021. And the statistics do not begin to capture the collective impact these shootings have on entire communities in which they occur as well as on school communities across our country.
2021 Oxford High School Shooting
On November 30, 2021, a 15-year-old student opened fire at Oxford High School in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. Four students were shot and killed and seven other people were shot and wounded.1Michigan School Shooting: Student Kills Four and Wounds Seven,” BBC News, December 1, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-59484333.
The shooter was taken into custody and charged with multiple counts, including first-degree murder, assault with intent to murder, terrorism, and possession of a firearm.2Jack Nissen, “Ethan Crumbley in Court Friday on Oxford High School Shooting Charges—What to Know,” Fox 2 Detroit, January 6, 2022, https://www.fox2detroit.com/news/oxford-high-school-shooter-ethan-crumbley-back-in-court-jan-7-what-to-know.
He used a firearm that his father had purchased for him days earlier, and which was kept unsecured in the home. His parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter for failing to secure the handgun he used in the shooting.3Becky Sullivan, “Parents of Michigan School Shooting Suspect Are Charged with Involuntary Manslaughter,” NPR, December 4, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/12/03/1061190344/michigan-school-shooting-parents-oxford-charged.
Lawsuits alleging negligence to heed the shooter’s behavioral warning signs were later filed against the school district.4Robert Snell, “Oxford School Leaders Let Crumbley Accelerate ‘Murderous Rampage,’ Lawsuit Claims,” Detroit News, January 8, 2022, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/oakland-county/2022/01/08/oxford-school-shooting-lawsuit-ethan-crumbleys-rampage-geoffrey-fieger/9142326002/.
Gun Deaths on School Grounds by Intent
Gun Injuries on School Grounds by Intent
- Unintentional Shootings: Approximately 15 percent of gunfire incidents on school grounds were unintentional, whether resulting in injury or death or when no one was shot. These 85 incidents resulted in at least four deaths and 50 people wounded. At least 31 of those victims were students at the time.
- Suicide Deaths and Attempts: Seven percent of incidents involved suicide deaths and attempts where events indicate that the shooter did not intend to harm others. These 38 incidents resulted in 33 deaths and five people wounded.12For this category, the number of deaths and people wounded includes the shooter’s nonfatal wounds or death only in the event that the shooter did not intend to harm another. At least 28 of those victims were students at the time.
Four Key Facts about School Gun Violence
Understanding basic lessons learned from incidents of gun violence in schools is integral to creating a comprehensive plan to address their threat and effects. Analyzing Everytown’s Gunfire on School Grounds dataset and studies from other widely cited organizations yields several critical lessons that guide our school safety proposals.
1. Those Discharging Guns on School Grounds Often Have a Connection to the School
In the Everytown database, 60 percent of school-age shooters were current or former students, including all shooters involved in mass shootings and nearly all in self-harm incidents (96 percent) and in unintentional discharges of a gun (91 percent).13Information about the shooter’s relationship to the school is often not publicly reported in the immediate aftermath of a shooting. Everytown was able to identify the relationship of 80 percent of shooters in the preschool–Grade 12 age range, a total of 178 of the 222 shooters. Of the 222 shooters ages 5 to 19, 56 percent were current students, 4 percent were former students, 8 percent were other minors, 12 percent were other adults, less than 1 percent were school staff, and the relationship was unknown for 20 percent of the shooters.
An Everytown analysis of the New York City Police Department’s review of active shooter incidents in K–12 schools over the five-decade period from 1966 to 2016 found that in three in four of these incidents, the shooter or shooters were school-age and were current or former students.14New York City Police Department, “Active Shooter: Recommendations and Analysis for Risk Mitigation,” 2016, https://on.nyc.gov/2nWHM4O. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) defines an active shooter as “a person(s) actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” In its definition, The Department of Homeland Security notes that, “in most cases, active shooters use firearm(s) and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims.” Everytown limited its analysis of this data to incidents that took place in K–12 schools and defined school-age as under the age of 21. Similarly, an analysis by National Institute of Justice–funded researchers found that in the six mass school shootings15Columbine High School, Red Lake Senior High School, West Nickel Mines School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and Santa Fe High School. and 39 attempted mass school shootings16Defined as incidents where a person came to a school heavily armed and fired indiscriminately at numerous people. in the two decades between 1999 and 2019, more than nine in 10 shooters were current or former students at the school.17Jillian Peterson and James Densley, “School Shooters Usually Show These Signs of Distress Long before They Open Fire, Our Database Shows,” The Conversation, February 8, 2019, https://bit.ly/2vBTA3J. These data suggest that school-based interventions to support students in crisis and act on warning signs are vital for addressing school gun violence.
2. The Guns Generally Come from Home, Family, or Friends
Research suggests that, as with the Oxford High School shooting, school-age shooters predominantly obtain their guns from family, relatives, or friends—they generally do not purchase them.
The US Secret Service has undertaken two studies of targeted school violence, covering nearly 40 years of incidents. They found that three-quarters of school shooters acquired their firearm from the home of a parent or close relative (73 percent in the first study and 76 percent in the second study). The Secret Service’s second study of incidents, from 2008 to 2017, revealed that in nearly half of the shootings, the firearm was easily accessible or was not stored securely.18National Threat Assessment Center, “Protecting America’s Schools: A US Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence,” US Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, 2019, https://bit.ly/2U7vnwa.
This is a notably difficult characteristic of school violence to study because while law enforcement generally does ascertain the source of the gun, authorities often do not release this information publicly and the media rarely report this information after the incident. Yet knowing how the weapon was obtained is absolutely essential for those tasked with keeping schools safe from potential school shooters in the future.
School districts can help prevent school shootings by issuing notices to families about the critical importance of secure firearm storage in keeping schools and students safe. Presently, nearly three million students across the country live in a school district that issues such notices.19As of August 2022, roughly 2.8 million students live in a school district with a secure storage notification policy. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, “Major Milestone: More Than Two Million Students Nationwide Now Attend Schools with Secure Firearm Storage Awareness Policies,” press release, December 15, 2021, https://momsdemandaction.org/major-milestone-more-than-two-million-students-nationwide-now-attend-schools-with-secure-firearm-storage-awareness-policies/. But there is more work to be done–this amounts to only 6 percent of the United States’ nearly 50 million public schoolchildren.20The National Center for Education Statistics, “Back-to-School Statistics,” 2021, https://tinyurl.com/jnxyjh2d.
3. There Are Nearly Always Warning Signs
When it comes to school shootings, there are nearly always advance indications. These warning signs, if appropriately identified, can offer an opportunity for intervention. The Secret Service study of incidents from 2008 to 2017 found that 100 percent of the perpetrators showed concerning behaviors, and that 77 percent of the time at least one person, most often a peer, knew about their plan.21National Threat Assessment Center, “Protecting America’s Schools.”
These data suggest that fostering a trusting and emotionally safe school climate—where students are willing to both ask adults for help and to report any destructive thoughts and behaviors, such as gun threats on social media or weapons carrying—can be effective tools for prevention. Taking immediate action on those warning signs is essential.
4. Gun Violence in American Schools Has a Disproportionate Impact on Students of Color
While perpetrators of mass shootings in schools have tended to be white and are portrayed in media coverage as occurring in predominantly white schools, the larger context of gunfire on school grounds presents a very different picture. In the shooting incidents where Everytown was able to identify the racial makeup of the student body, two in three incidents (67 percent) occurred in majority-minority schools.22Everytown gathered demographic information on the student population of each school included in our Gunfire on School Grounds database for which data were available, comprising 552 of 569 incidents. A majority-minority school is defined as one in which one or more racial and/or ethnic minorities constitute a majority of the student population. The burden of gun violence has a particularly outsized impact on Black students. Although Black students represent approximately 15 percent of the total K–12 school population in America,23US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary and Secondary Education, 1998–99 through 2018–19; National Elementary and Secondary Enrollment by Race/Ethnicity Projection Model, 1972 through 2029,” Common Core Data (CCD), September 2020, https://bit.ly/3HI5tVf. Everytown averaged the student population size, both total and Black student populations, for the years 2013 to 2021. Data at the national level for demographics of the student population at preschools is not available. they make up 30 percent of the average population at schools that have been impacted by a fatal shooting. This suggests that creating safe and equitable schools and supporting community-oriented intervention programs in communities with high rates of gun violence can help address these broader trends.
Racial Demographics at K-12 Schools with Gunfire Incidents
Solutions to Prevent School Gun Violence
In order to effectively address violence in our schools, we must first acknowledge that school violence is, in part, a gun violence problem. Many “comprehensive” school safety plans have been proposed over the last 20 years. Few have thoroughly addressed the issue common in all school shootings: easy access to guns for those at risk of committing harm. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA firmly believe that any effective school safety plan must involve an effort to enact gun safety policies that enable intervention before a prospective shooter can get their hands on a gun. These policies work hand in hand with school-based interventions to create safer school climates and to intervene before a student becomes a shooter.
Gun Safety Policies
Enact and Enforce Secure Firearm Storage Laws
As with the shooter at Oxford High School, the most common sources of guns used in school shootings and across all school gun violence incidents are the shooter’s home or the homes of friends or relatives. This is unsurprising, as nearly 4.6 million American children live in homes with at least one gun that is loaded and unlocked.24Matthew Miller and Deborah Azrael, “Firearm Storage in US Households with Children: Findings from the 2021 National Firearm Survey,” JAMA Network Open 5, no. 2 (2022): e2148823, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.48823. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that states enact and enforce secure firearm storage laws. In addition, policymakers should promote public awareness programs that can encourage secure gun storage and induce behavior change.
These laws require that people store firearms securely when they are not in their possession in order to prevent unauthorized access. Under these laws, generally, when a person accesses a firearm and does harm with it, the person who failed to securely store the firearm is responsible. A common form of secure storage laws, child access prevention laws, are narrower, and they hold individuals liable only when minors access firearms that are not securely stored. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have some form of secure storage law.25CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, FL, HI, IA, IL, MA, MD, ME, MN, NC, NH, NJ, NV, NY, OR, RI, TX, VA, WA, and WI. In addition, several cities, including New York City and San Francisco, have passed secure storage laws.26New York City Administrative Code 10-312; San Francisco Police Code 4512; Seattle, Wash. Mun. Code Section 10.79.010, et seq. (effective February 2019); Edmonds, Wash. Mun. Code Section 5.26.010, et seq. (effective March 2019).
Studies show that these laws save lives, especially as they reduce unintentional shootings and firearm suicides. One study found that households that locked both firearms and ammunition were associated with a 78 percent lower risk of self-inflicted firearm injuries and an 85 percent lower risk of unintentional firearm injuries among children and teenagers than those that locked neither.27David C. Grossman et al., “Gun Storage Practices and Risk of Youth Suicide and Unintentional Firearm Injuries,” JAMA 293, no. 6 (2005): 707–14, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.293.6.707. Another study estimated that if half of households with children that contain at least one unlocked gun switched to locking all of their guns, one-third of youth gun suicides and unintentional deaths could be prevented, saving an estimated 251 young lives in a single year.28Michael C. Monuteaux, Deborah Azrael, and Matthew Miller, “Association of Increased Safe Household Firearm Storage with Firearm Suicide and Unintentional Death among US Youths,” JAMA Pediatrics 173, no. 7 (2019): 657–62, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.1078. Given what is known about the source of guns in school gun violence, these laws can help prevent underage shooters from accessing unsecured guns in homes and prevent mass shootings and other violent incidents.
Enforcement and public awareness are essential components in making sure that secure gun storage laws work. Only one in three gun owners living in states with child access prevention laws know that their state requires secure storage of guns.29Ali Rowhani-Rahbar et al., “Knowledge of State Gun Laws among US Adults in Gun-Owning Households,” JAMA Network Open 4, no. 11 (November 2021): e2135141, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.35141. To facilitate effective enforcement, state legislatures need to make sure their laws are precisely written to cover access by anyone under age 18 and are well known among gun owners. It is also crucial to collect data on and monitor the implementation of these laws to ensure that they are not enforced in a discriminatory manner toward overpoliced communities or lead toward increased incarceration in communities.
Pass Extreme Risk Laws
As with most active shooter incidents in schools, there were warning signs prior to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Nearly 30 people knew about the shooter’s previous violent behavior,30Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, “Initial Report Submitted to the Governor, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Senate President,” January 2, 2019, 264, https://bit.ly/37Gaoop. and law enforcement had been called to incidents involving the shooter on dozens of occasions.31Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, “Initial Report,” 234–39. However, the shooter legally bought the gun he used, as he had never been convicted of a crime, and his mental health history did not legally prohibit him from buying or having guns. Accounts of the shooting show that law enforcement and the shooter’s family had no legal mechanism in the state of Florida to prevent the shooter’s easy access to guns.
To fill this critical gap in our laws, Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that states enact Extreme Risk laws. These laws create a legal process by which law enforcement, family members, and, in some states, educators can petition a court to temporarily prevent a person from having access to firearms when there is evidence that they are at serious risk of harming themselves or others, giving them the time they need to get help.
In cases where a student poses a threat, these orders can be used to prevent a student from buying a firearm even if otherwise they would legally be allowed to do so. These orders can also be used with minors, who may not be legally allowed to buy or have guns, but who may still have access to them at home.
Extreme Risk laws provide a civil procedure that gives key community members a way to intervene without going through the criminal court system. These Extreme Risk protection orders, sometimes also called red flag orders or gun violence restraining orders, can be issued only after a legal determination is made that a person poses a serious threat to themselves or others. They also contain strong due process protections to ensure that a person’s rights are balanced with public safety. Once an order is issued, a person is required to relinquish any guns they have and is prohibited from buying new guns temporarily, for a period generally lasting one year.
There is substantial evidence that these laws can prevent acts of violence in schools. In Maryland, leaders of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association pointed to at least four cases where an Extreme Risk law was invoked involving “significant threats” against schools.32Luke Broadwater, “Sheriff: Maryland’s ‘Red Flag’ Law Prompted Gun Seizures after Four ‘Significant Threats’ against Schools,” Baltimore Sun, January 15, 2019, https://bit.ly/2Gdf6Qi. In Florida, a Red Flag law passed in 2018 has been invoked in multiple cases of potential school violence, including one case of a student who was accused of stalking an ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill himself33Emma Kennedy, “Tate Student’s AR-15, Father’s 54 Guns Removed under New Red Flag Law,” Pensacola News Journal, July 9, 2018, https://bit.ly/2UHmaba. and another in which a potential school shooter said killing people would be “fun and addicting.”34Jessica Lipscomb, “Florida’s Post-Parkland ‘Red Flag’ Law Has Taken Guns from Dozens of Dangerous People,” Miami New Times, August 7, 2018, https://bit.ly/2ORW56U. A study in California details 21 cases in which a gun violence restraining order, California’s name for an extreme risk protection order, was used in efforts to prevent mass shootings, including five instances where schools or children were targeted.35Garen J. Wintemute et al., “Extreme Risk Protection Orders Intended to Prevent Mass Shootings: A Case Series,” Annals of Internal Medicine 171, no. 9 (2019), https://doi.org/10.7326/M19-2162.
Because Extreme Risk laws are a proven tool with strong due process protections, they enjoy strong bipartisan support. Fourteen states, including Florida, as well as Washington, DC, have passed Extreme Risk laws since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018; five of them were signed by Republican governors.36CO, DE, FL, HI, IL, MA, MD, NJ, NM, NV, NY, RI, VA, and VT. FL, IL, MA, MD, and VT had Republican governors at the time of signing. In all, 19 states and DC now have Extreme Risk laws on the books.37The 19 states are CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, HI, IL, IN, MA, MD, NJ, NM, NV, NY, OR, RI, VA, VT, and WA.
For states that have already enacted Extreme Risk laws, awareness among the public is a key component for their success. Currently, use of these laws varies enormously by state, as shown in this table. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that these states train law enforcement on the availability and use of these laws and that public awareness campaigns help to make knowledge of this option widely known. School officials also need to know that this tool is available to them as part of a comprehensive intervention with a student who is at serious risk to themselves or others. Overall, these laws are a commonsense method for acting on the warning signs too often found in active shooter incidents.
Raise the Age to Purchase Semi-Automatic Firearms
Despite the evidence that most active shooters are school-age and have a connection to the school, few states have stepped in to close gaps that allow minors to legally purchase high-powered firearms. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA believe states and the federal government should raise the minimum age to purchase or possess handguns and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns to 21 in order to prevent school-age shooters from easily obtaining firearms.
Under federal law, in order to purchase a handgun from a licensed gun dealer, a person must be 21.3818 U.S.C.§ 922(b)(1). Yet to purchase that same handgun in an unlicensed sale (online or from a private individual), or to purchase a rifle or shotgun from a licensed dealer, a person only has to be 18.3918 U.S.C.§ 922(b)(1); 18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(2). Only a few states have acted to close these gaps.40Only five states and DC require a person to be 21 to possess a handgun: DC, IL, MA, MD, NJ, and NY. Only IL and DC require a person to be 21 to possess a rifle or shotgun, and only six states require a person to be 21 to purchase a rifle or shotgun from a licensed gun dealer: CA, DC, FL, HI, IL, VT, and WA.
These deficiencies in the law leave an easy path for active shooters to obtain firearms. Because he was under 21, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter could not have gone into a gun store and bought a handgun, but he was able to legally buy the AR-15 assault-style rifle he used in the shooting. Following the shooting, Florida changed its law to raise the age to purchase all firearms to 21.41Fla. Stat. § 790.065(13). Minimum-age laws can work in tandem with secure storage and Extreme Risk laws to cut off an easy way for shooters to obtain firearms.
Require Background Checks on All Gun Sales
Background checks are the key to enforcing US gun laws and are an effective tool for keeping guns out of the hands of people with dangerous histories. As part of a comprehensive plan to prevent gun violence in schools, Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that states and the federal government act to pass laws that require background checks on all gun sales so that potential shooters cannot easily purchase firearms.
Current federal law requires that background checks be conducted whenever a person attempts to purchase a firearm from a licensed gun dealer, to ensure that the prospective buyer is not legally prohibited from possessing guns.4218 U.S.C. § 922(t). For example, when a person becomes subject to an extreme risk protection order, that record is entered into the federal background check database, and a background check at the point of sale prevents that person from buying a firearm at a gun store. However, current federal law does not require background checks on sales between unlicensed parties, including those at gun shows or online. As such, people with dangerous histories can easily circumvent the background check system simply by purchasing their firearm online or at a gun show.
A 2021 Everytown investigation showed that as many as one in nine people looking to buy a firearm on Armslist.com, the nation’s largest online gun marketplace, are people who cannot legally have firearms, including because they are under age 18. And the unlicensed sales marketplace is large: The same investigation found that 1.2 million online ads offering firearms for sale are listed annually that would not legally require a background check to be completed.43Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Unchecked: An Investigation of the Online Firearm Marketplace,” February 1, 2021, https://everytownresearch.org/report/unchecked-an-investigation-of-the-online-firearm-marketplace/.
Background checks are an important part of any school safety plan because they are our most comprehensive strategy to prevent minors, people subject to extreme risk protection orders, and other people who shouldn’t have guns from accessing them. Without background checks, guns are easily accessible in the online and gun show markets without any questions asked, making it difficult for law enforcement to detect violations of the law and undermining other strategies to keep guns out of the hands of shooters.
Background checks are proven to reduce gun violence. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already require a background check on all handgun sales.44CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, HI, IL, MA, MD, MI, NC, NE, NJ, NM, NV, NY, OR, PA, RI, VA, VT, and WA. State laws requiring background checks for all handgun sales—by point-of-sale check and/or permit—are associated with lower firearm homicide rates,45Michael Siegel and Claire Boine, “What Are the Most Effective Policies in Reducing Gun Homicides?,” Rockefeller Institute of Government, March 2019, https://bit.ly/2YPAz7P. lower firearm suicide rates,46Eric W. Fleegler et al., “Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Fatalities in the United States,” JAMA Internal Medicine 173, no. 9 (2013): 732–40, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.1286. and lower firearm trafficking.47Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, and Maria T. Bulzacchelli, “Effects of State-Level Firearm Seller Accountability Policies on Firearm Trafficking,” Journal of Urban Health 86, no. 4 (July 2009): 525–37; Daniel W. Webster et al., “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through Effective Firearm Sales Laws,” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 109–21.
After Connecticut passed a law requiring background checks for a handgun purchase permit and at the point of sale, its firearm homicide rate decreased by 40 percent,48Kara E. Rudolph et al., “Association between Connecticut’s Permit-to-Purchase Handgun Law and Homicides,” American Journal of Public Health 105, no. 8 (2015): e49–e54, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302703. and its firearm suicide rate decreased by 15 percent.49Cassandra K. Crifasi et al., “Effects of Changes in Permit-to-Purchase Handgun Laws in Connecticut and Missouri on Suicide Rates,” Preventive Medicine 79 (2015): 43–49, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.07.013. Background checks reduce gun violence and are a crucial backbone for any school gun violence prevention strategy.
Foster a Safe and Trusting School Climate
Supportive and trusting school environments are the strongest way to prevent school violence. When communities are focused on student well-being, schools can be places of care and compassion for the challenges kids face, while also creating the conditions for preventing school shootings and other violence. Given the evidence discussed above that most school shooters are current or former students and that they nearly always show warning signs, the locus of school violence prevention must necessarily center around schools.
One means of creating safe schools is to support them to become “community schools”—the focal point and heart of their communities. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that schools utilize district, state, and federal funding to help schools partner with community members to move beyond the normal confines of a school, particularly in communities that experience high rates of gun violence.
Community schools work with local partners to provide valuable services that help uplift the entire community. They not only become centers of education but fulfill a broader purpose of contributing to stable, healthy, and safe neighborhoods. In schools facing high levels of violence in and outside of the school building, a community school might fund programs such as creating safe passages to and from school, granting alternatives to out-of-school suspensions that offer meaningful educational opportunities for students, providing family counseling, increasing access to mentoring both in and outside of school, and incorporating restorative justice into discipline policies.
School and Community Partnership
One example of a partnership between schools and a promising community program is an initiative that offered cognitive behavioral therapy for at-risk young people in schools in the West and South Sides of Chicago. Evaluation of the impacts on over 5,000 students in a randomized controlled trial found that participation in the program reduced violent crime arrests by 45 to 50 percent and juvenile justice system readmissions by 80 percent. This was a partnership with Chicago’s Being a Man program in school years during the period from 2009 to 2015.1Sara B. Heller et al., “Thinking, Fast and Slow? Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago,” Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2015, https://doi.org/10.3386/w21178.
Zero-tolerance policies are those that, in an earnest attempt to make schools safe and orderly, can end up punishing students who exhibit behavior that actually requires compassionate intervention. In addition, these policies can create a threatening climate that instills fear and erodes student trust, reducing the chances that students will share information when they are concerned about classmates. The zero-tolerance approach has also had a profoundly negative effect on students of color. Schools need to review their discipline policies to make sure they are not unduly punishing students for normal adolescent behavior nor creating a climate that reduces the willingness of students to share concerning information, and that staff are trained on appropriate ways to manage their classrooms and implicit biases. As part of a comprehensive strategy, Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that school communities look inside their schools to make sure they are encouraging effective partnerships between students and adults.
Students thrive in positive school environments. Supportive schools foster an affirming academic climate while also maintaining secure physical settings. Safe schools are built on trusting relationships among students, staff, and administrators.50National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, “School Climate Improvement,” accessed April 4, 2022, https://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/school-climate-improvement.
Significant resources must also be provided to assist students impacted by gun violence. Our students see their friends, parents, siblings, cousins, and neighbors shot in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, and countless other communities where the violence does not make the national news. Gun violence is among our nation’s most significant public health problems, not only because of death and injury, but also due to the long-term psychological toll that gun-related incidents inflict on those who survive shootings or whose friends or family members are wounded or killed by gun violence. Educators see that the trauma and anxiety that gun violence creates does not simply vanish. Students carry this trauma and fear with them inside and outside the classroom. All levels of government must invest resources to ensure that every school has the appropriate number of mental health professionals on staff and that other mental health support programs are in place.
Build a Culture of Secure Gun Storage
In addition to enacting secure storage laws, policymakers and educators should encourage a culture of secure gun storage by increasing awareness of secure storage practices. For years, Moms Demand Action has run a program called Be SMART.51For more information, visit http://besmartforkids.org/. This program focuses on fostering conversations with adults about gun storage to facilitate behavior change and address the hundreds of unintentional shootings committed and experienced by children every year. The acronym SMART stands for Secure guns in homes and vehicles, Model responsible behavior, Ask about unsecured guns in homes, Recognize the role of guns in suicide, and Tell your peers to be SMART. Governors, federal52Everytown for Gun Safety, “Everytown Renews Calls on Biden-Harris Administration to Promote Secure Firearm Storage, Releases New School Shooting Data in Wake of Oxford High School Shooting,” press release, December 1, 2021, https://www.everytown.org/press/everytown-renews-calls-on-biden-harris-administration-to-promote-secure-firearm-storage-releases-new-school-shooting-data-in-wake-of-oxford-high-school-shooting/. and state departments of health and education, legislatures, nonprofit organizations, and local officials should also work together to develop and fund programs that increase awareness of the need to store firearms securely. Schools should distribute information to parents about the importance of secure storage,53Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, “How to Pass a Secure Storage Resolution at Your School,” December 17, 2021, https://studentsdemandaction.org/report/how-to-pass-a-secure-storage-resolution-at-your-school/. as school officials are already doing in Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Denver, Clark County, Nevada, and throughout Tennessee, among other places.54Stephen Sawchuk, “More Schools Are Reminding Parents to Secure Their Guns,” Education Week, December 8, 2021, https://www.edweek.org/leadership/more-schools-are-reminding-parents-to-secure-their-guns/2021/12. Thus far, school districts comprising nearly three million students have taken this vital action.55Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, “Major Milestone.”
Encouraging secure storage practices can make an enormous difference in reducing gun violence in school communities and would address the most common source of firearms used in school gun violence incidents.
Create Trauma-Informed Crisis Intervention Practices in Schools
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”Benjamin Franklin
The most important thing that schools can do to prevent active shooter incidents—and gun violence overall—is to intervene before a person commits an act of violence. Students who commit violent acts have almost always previously shown signs that concerned other people around them.56National Threat Assessment Center, “Protecting America’s Schools.” The key is to identify students who may be in crisis and provide behavioral and mental health support to prevent the crisis from becoming violent. To do this in a manner that serves students and protects the community, Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that schools, concurrent with other community partners, create trauma-informed crisis intervention practices involving the convening of a multidisciplinary team that responds when a student shows they may be in crisis. These teams receive information about a student in crisis, evaluate the situation, and design interventions to prevent violence and provide appropriate treatment, support, and resources. State legislatures should also make funding available for schools to invest in personnel training and the mental health-care resources needed to promote the restorative justice and de-escalation practices that trauma-informed crisis intervention requires. Based on what we know about school violence, it is critical to respond to many forms of student crises, such as housing instability or substance abuse, not only threats of violence.
Building on recent concerns about an overreliance on a punitive response to students in crisis and the undue harm of this approach for students of color and students with disabilities, education experts are placing emphasis on intervening to prevent violence but also on building out resources to support students in crisis. This can include issues of mental health, housing, parental and family support, juvenile court representation, and more. There is also greater emphasis on ongoing follow-up on the student’s progress following the immediate period of crisis, including connecting with family members or teachers to ensure a student’s ultimate success in school. One program that offers a step-by-step approach that emphasizes this supportive, less punitive alternative is the R-Model, developed in partnership with the Minnesota School Safety Center.57Jillian Peterson, James Densley, and Missy Dodds, “The R-Model: Ready–Respond–Refer–Revisit—K–12 School Crisis Response Teams,” off-ramp, https://off-ramp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/R-Model-Protocol-Final-2.pdf. This model emphasizes the difference between disruptive and truly dangerous behavior, and offers solutions that do not escalate concerning acts or punish typical adolescent behavior. Such models are essential for creating emotionally safe environments and keeping students in school and out of the criminal justice system.
Most students facing crises will never commit an act of violence and must not be treated like criminals. Our recommended practice is the opposite of “zero tolerance” and is not based on a punitive or criminal justice approach, and should not rely on exclusionary discipline as a means of intervention. A school needs to be a trusted place where students feel safe to share when they or someone else is in crisis, knowing that it will lead to help and support rather than punishment or prison. Schools must also be transparent on the type of threats that are so imminent, actionable, and severe that law enforcement must be engaged to investigate.
Crisis intervention practices offer members of the entire school community the ability to share concerns and connect students in crisis with ongoing support to build safer, more supportive environments for children and adults alike. Effective programs have a mechanism in place to collect information about potential violence, including a means to anonymously report it.58Schools can also consider using a program like Sandy Hook Promise’s “Know the Signs” and “Say Something” campaigns, which train students on warning signs and encourage them to report potentially violent behavior. Sandy Hook Promise, “Know the Signs Programs,” accessed February 1, 2020, https://bit.ly/2S9fgPa. Crisis intervention programs allow a school to have a coordinated and collaborative approach that involves everyone who interacts with students—from school administrators and teachers to counselors, nurses, social workers, hall and lunchroom monitors, and bus drivers. In addition, school communications staff should be included as they play an essential role in creating socially just crisis intervention practices.
Any crisis intervention program must be paired with a rigorous assessment of efficacy and collateral harms to prevent disproportionate or unwarranted interventions. Any decision that leads to punitive action or law enforcement engagement requires thorough review by school district leaders as these instances need to be the rare exception to a healthy program based on supportive intervention.
Implement Access Control Measures and Door Locks
Physical security is a critical intervention point to keep guns out of schools. The most effective physical security measures—the ones on which most experts agree—are access control measures that keep shooters out of schools in the first place. As a secondary measure, internal door locks, which enable teachers to lock doors from the inside, can work to deter active shooters who are able to access the school, protecting students and allowing law enforcement time to neutralize any potential threat.
2018 MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL SHOOTING
In 2018, as the shooter arrived on the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, several critical access control failures gave him easy access to the school. The outside perimeter fence of the campus had a gate that was open and left unstaffed. As he entered Building 12, where the shooting happened, he exploited another critical safety failure as the door to the building was left unlocked. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission concluded, “The overall lack of uniform and mandated physical site security requirements resulted in voids that allowed [the shooter] initial access to MSDHS and is a system failure.”2Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, “Initial Report,” 42.
Most experts, including members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission and the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, agree that the ability to control access should be a component of any school security plan.59Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, “Initial Report,” 42; Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, “Final Report of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission: Presented to Governor Dannel P. Malloy, State of Connecticut,” March 6, 2015, https://bit.ly/1C5aeU3. Preventing unauthorized access to schools through fencing, single access points, and simply ensuring that doors are locked can keep shooters out of schools. State legislatures should provide funding for access control measures for schools to ensure that would-be shooters cannot have easy access.
At Sandy Hook Elementary School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, lack of locks on classroom doors exposed educators and students to danger. School safety experts, including the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, agree that schools should make sure that classroom doors lock from the inside as well as the outside.60Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, “Final Report.” Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that all schools equip doors with interior door locks to help prevent shooters from gaining access to classrooms.
Of course, one of the biggest challenges with security upgrades is maintaining a welcoming school environment. Schools cannot become fortresses or prisons. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA endorse basic security measures universally recommended by school safety experts, like access control and internal door locks, while recommending that schools also consider other expert-endorsed security measures, such as preparedness planning, based on local conditions.
Initiate Trauma-Informed Emergency Planning
Planning and preparation are key to ensuring an effective response if an incident of gun violence does occur on school grounds. Security experts universally agree that school personnel need to have an effective emergency plan in place to respond quickly to and neutralize any threat. The Federal Emergency Management Agency maintains a six-point guide for developing high-quality emergency response plans for schools. This guide stresses collaboration and advance planning to help mitigate emergency incidents.61US Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Office of Safe and Healthy Students, “Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans,” 2013, https://bit.ly/2Gnz764. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that school personnel, in collaboration with law enforcement, plan for the unlikely event of a gun violence emergency or active shooter incident through regular practice.
Recommendations for effective planning include efforts to ensure that schools work with law enforcement and first responders to provide information about the school’s layout and security measures, that staff and law enforcement work together to ensure that they can identify the nature of a threat, and that schools make a detailed plan for their lockdown and evacuation procedures.62US Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Office of Safe and Healthy Students, “Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans,” 57, 2013, https://bit.ly/2Gnz764. Emergency procedures must be trauma-informed, meaning that their design should reflect several key elements: “a realization of the widespread prevalence and impact of trauma, a recognition of the signs of traumatic exposure, and a response grounded in evidence-based practices that resist retraumatization of individuals.”63Stacy Overstreet and Sandra M. Chafouleas. “Trauma-Informed Schools: Introduction to the Special Issue,” School Mental Health 8, no. 1 (March 2016): 1–6, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-016-9184-1. This means emergency planning should be buttressed by trigger warnings and access to mental health counseling and should never simulate an active shooter event. Trauma-informed emergency planning requires that the staff involved have tools to change emergency and evacuation planning in real time, should any activities prove harmful to anyone participating.
Practices That Can Harm and Traumatize Students
Arming Teachers Puts Children at Greater Risk
One of the most dangerous ideas in the American education system is that arming teachers or school staff is an effective solution to an active shooter incident. While the desire for action is understandable, the popular notion of a well-trained teacher acting as a last line of defense in a situation of a school shooting is not based on any experience or research. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA strongly urge, as a matter of student safety, that schools reject attempts to arm teachers and instead focus on proven solutions that intervene to prevent shootings before they start.
Is an armed teacher supposed to protect their children in their classroom? Will they be able to identify and shoot one of their own students? How will they react in a crisis? Will they be able to shoot accurately? In a shooter situation, how will law enforcement be able to distinguish between a lawfully carrying teacher and a shooter? While those who implement the idea may be sincere in their search for a solution, arming teachers raises more questions than answers. It is argued that armed teachers are cost-effective replacements for law enforcement, but arming teachers would cost billions of dollars for training, equipment, and insurance, and armed teachers are never acceptable replacements for trained law enforcement.
Most parents, teachers, and members of law enforcement oppose arming teachers. Law enforcement officials, those we charge with protecting our schools, strongly oppose arming teachers. The National Association of School Resource Officers and a then-president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association have each indicated their opposition to arming teachers.64National Association of School Resource Officers, “NASRO Opposes Arming Teachers,” press release, February 22, 2018, https://bit.ly/2RdOq55; Greg Toppo, “132 Hours to Train Teachers on Guns: Is It Enough?,” USA Today, March 8, 2018, https://bit.ly/2SvCdes; Brandon E. Patterson, “America’s Police Chiefs Call Bullshit on Arming Teachers,” Mother Jones, March 8, 2018, https://bit.ly/2HjsDT3.
Parents and teachers also oppose arming teachers. A March 2018 survey of almost 500 US teachers found that 73 percent oppose proposals to arm school staff.65Megan Brenan, “Most U.S. Teachers Oppose Carrying Guns in Schools,” Gallup, March 16, 2018, https://bit.ly/2MPTRV5. Another survey found that 63 percent of parents of K–12 school students oppose arming teachers.66PDK Poll, “School Security: Is Your Child Safe at School?,” September 2018, https://bit.ly/2FHli0u.
However, evidence indicates that the message about “well-trained” teachers is catching on with policymakers and some schools. The Federal School Safety Commission under the Trump administration became the first federal entity to endorse arming teachers and school staff.67Federal Commission on School Safety, “Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety: Presented to the President of the United States,” December 18, 2018, https://bit.ly/2SVPqK6. A number of state legislatures are considering the idea of armed teachers, and many schools have looked to arming teachers or school staff as a solution to school gun violence.
The notion that only highly trained teachers will be carrying guns in schools is a myth. Law enforcement personnel who carry guns on a daily basis receive hundreds of hours of initial training and are generally required to continue their training regularly throughout their careers. The average number of initial training hours that a law enforcement officer receives at a basic training academy is 840.68Brian A. Reaves, “State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies, 2013,” US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2016, https://bit.ly/2pg0whI. On average, recruits receive 168 hours of training on weapons, self-defense, and the use of force.69Reaves, “State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies.”
In the 10 states that have laws designed to allow for armed school personnel, those armed personnel receive significantly less training. The laws vary widely, but none of them require teachers or school staff to undergo training that is akin to that completed by a full-time law enforcement officer. In fact, some states don’t have any minimum hourly training requirement. In Kansas, school districts are free to set their own policy regarding training of staff carrying guns.70K.S.A. § 75-7c10(d)(1). Georgia law stipulates that armed school personnel must be trained but does not require any minimum number of training hours.71O.C.G.A. § 16-11-130.1. Several school districts exploit vagaries in the law to arm teachers with no state oversight. For example, a gap in Texas law led to the establishment of “Guardian” programs, which allow school districts to set policy on what qualifications and training are required for armed teachers and staff, without any required training minimum.72Alex Samuels, “Texas Schools That Want to Arm Their Employees Have Two Choices,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 14, 2018, https://bit.ly/2MNh2PT.
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.73Bernard D. Rostker et al., “Evaluation of the New York City Police Department Firearm Training and Firearm-Discharge Review Process,” RAND Corporation, 2008, https://bit.ly/2U9bk0t. To expect a teacher to make split-second, life-or-death decisions to protect children and themselves or try to take down an active shooter is unrealistic.
One of the most grievous risks of arming teachers is that more access to firearms is strongly correlated with additional risk of gun violence. Research strongly supports the finding that if teachers carry guns into schools, children are more likely to access those guns. Studies consistently show that the majority of children are aware of where their parents store their guns and have handled them without their parents’ knowledge.74Frances Baxley and Matthew Miller, “Parental Misperceptions about Children and Firearms,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 160, no. 5 (2006): 542–47, https://doi.org/10.1001/archpedi.160.5.542. The same is true in schools: when teachers and staff bring guns into schools, children too often know where the guns are and will access them. And we know that when children access guns, the risks of death or harm significantly increase. In fact, irrespective of age, access to a firearm triples the risk of death by suicide and doubles the risk of death by homicide.75Andrew Anglemyer, Tara Horvath, and George Rutherford, “The Accessibility of Firearms and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization among Household Members: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Annals of Internal Medicine 160, no. 2 (2014), https://doi.org/10.7326/M13-1301.
Incidents appear in the media regularly in which guns brought in by armed adults were misplaced or students accessed them—guns left in bathrooms,76Becky Metrick, “Ex-Teacher Charged for Leaving Gun in School Bathroom, Police Say,” USA Today, September 13, 2016, https://bit.ly/2G9jlfF. locker rooms,77Associated Press, “No Charges after Isabella Co. Sheriff Accidentally Leaves Gun at School,” Detroit Free Press, April 3, 2018, https://bit.ly/2GtNfeb. even a gun that fell out when a teacher did a backflip.78Josh Rojas, “Student: Substitute Teacher Was Doing Back Flip When Gun Fell Out,” Bay News 9, October 24, 2018, https://bit.ly/2t4SlFF. There are also multiple cases where guns were stolen and later found in the hands of students.79David Harten, “Police: Jacksonville High Student Steals Gun from Teacher,” Arkansas Democrat Gazette, January 17, 2012, https://bit.ly/2V3psWX; Roche Madden, “Police Find Teacher’s Stolen Gun with Student,” Fox 2 Now, October 25, 2018, https://bit.ly/2S9hqy7.
Arming teachers can further create a culture of fear for students of color, who are already subject to harsher discipline than their white classmates. The US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights found that during the 2015–16 school year, Black students comprised 15 percent of the total students enrolled in public school but accounted for 31 percent of students referred to or arrested by police.“80Data Highlights on School Climate and Safety in Our Nation’s Public Schools,” 2015–2016 Civil Rights Data Collection: School Climate and Safety, US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2018, https://bit.ly/3aVDJgx. Students of color can be severely disadvantaged if more guns are brought into schools.
Another serious concern about armed staff is the degree to which they can complicate law enforcement’s response. Responding to an active shooter incident can be very complex. Reports and analyses of mass shootings continually show communication errors, narrowly avoided friendly-fire incidents, and a lack of coordination during responses to active shooter incidents. To introduce a new variable—armed teachers—into this equation would serve only to further complicate the law enforcement response. As then–Dallas police chief David Brown said following the shooting of five law enforcement officers in Dallas where the response was complicated by people openly carrying firearms, “We don’t know who the good guy is versus who the bad guy is if everyone starts shooting.”81Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “Dallas Police Chief: Open Carry Makes Things Confusing during Mass Shootings,” Los Angeles Times, July 11, 2016, https://lat.ms/2GpxGUw.
Schools that have armed teachers and staff or are considering doing so must examine the many legal liabilities they can incur. Such policies, which are often developed behind closed doors, are frequently poorly drafted and inadequately vetted, leaving teachers and school districts legally exposed. Not only may they be civilly liable, but teachers who carry guns on the basis of a school policy may also expose themselves to criminal liability if the policy is in any way inconsistent with state law. Assuming there is an inconsistency, it is also unlikely that a school’s insurance policy would indemnify the school from monetary claims. Further, even if the policy is crafted with legal precision, the likelihood is high that a school district, school, or teacher would be sued if an armed teacher hurt a student or another person.
Some states have sought to address this issue by specifically immunizing armed teachers or staff from liability claims or by arguing that existing school immunity provisions bar claims against them or cap the amount of damages for which they would be liable. In fact, these provisions do not operate as a complete bar to lawsuits. States also cannot exempt schools from federal civil rights liability. Schools can and will be sued in federal court, and they will not be able to use state immunity provisions to protect themselves from claims.
School Resource Officers Don’t Stop School Shootings but Can Harm Students and Criminalize Typical Adolescent Behavior
School resource officers (SROs) are sworn law enforcement officers who work in schools. SROs have the power to arrest students, and nearly all are armed. Funding sources for these officers range widely, coming from school district funds, law enforcement budgets, or state or federal grants.
Relentless and frightening school gun violence has given districts, teachers, and communities an earnest desire to protect against school shootings. But the practice of policing in schools, including the traditional SRO model, has not been shown to reduce school shooting deaths. Partnership with law enforcement and security personnel in schools both certainly play vital roles in school safety. However, they must be used with training and guardrails to make sure they are making schools safe places for all teachers and students.
To date, placing armed officers in schools has not delivered results in terms of reducing school gun violence. One study examined 179 shootings on school grounds over a nearly two-decade period (from 1999 through 2018) and found no evidence that SROs in schools reduced deaths or injuries from school shooting incidents.82Melvin D. Livingston, Matthew E. Rossheim, and Kelli Stidham Hall, “A Descriptive Analysis of School and School Shooter Characteristics and the Severity of School Shootings in the United States, 1999–2018,” Journal of Adolescent Health 64, no. 6 (June 2019): 797–99, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.12.006. Another study of US public schools nationwide from 2014 to 2018 showed that while SROs may reduce school fights—certainly a desirable outcome—they do not prevent gun-related incidents in schools.83Lucy C. Sorensen et al., “The Thin Blue Line in Schools: New Evidence on School-Based Policing across the US,” EdWorkingPaper 21-476, October 2021, https://doi.org/10.26300/heqx-rc69. In fact, a National Institute of Justice-funded study of every school shooting/attempted school shooting from 1980 to 2019 in US K–12 schools found that the rate of death in these incidents was 2.83 times greater in schools with armed guards on the scene than in those without.84Jillian Peterson, James Densley, and Gina Erickson, “Presence of Armed School Officials and Fatal and Nonfatal Gunshot Injuries during Mass School Shootings, United States, 1980–2019,” JAMA Network Open 4, no. 2 (2021) e2037394, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.37394.
While a number of rigorous studies have concluded that SROs do not reduce gun violence in schools, research has identified conclusive evidence of three types of negative effects: criminalizing students, repercussions on student learning, and negative impact on students from historically marginalized groups, including students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students.
The mandate of SROs in schools tends to vary from district to district based on agreements with local police departments. In some school districts, police officers may receive additional training to equip them for working specifically with children. But many do not, resulting in increases in types of disciplinary actions and criminalizing measures, often for common adolescent behaviors such as being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for cursing.85Amir Whitaker et al., “Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students,” American Civil Liberties Union, March 2019, https://bit.ly/3xzz0fF. Research has identified increases in a range of disciplinary actions when police are in schools, including suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests.86Sorensen et al., “The Thin Blue Line in Schools.” A national report using US Department of Education data from 2015–2016 found that having police in schools is associated with 3.5 times as many arrests as in schools without police.87 Whitaker et al., “Cops and No Counselors.” This research does not negate the fact that there are violent situations in which educators or administrators may want to rely on security personnel to mediate, de-escalate and protect students and educators.
Another concerning by-product of armed police officers in schools is their impact on educational outcomes. A national public school study found that they can increase chronic absenteeism, which in turn can contribute to class failure and high school dropout.88Sorensen et al., “The Thin Blue Line in Schools.” A 2018 study of over 2.5 million Texas schoolchildren found that exposure to policing significantly decreased graduation rates for both Latinx and white high school students, and college-going among low-income Black, Latinx, and white students in schools that had a federal grant for school police.89Emily K. Weisburst, “Patrolling Public Schools: The Impact of Funding for School Police on Student Discipline and Long-Term Education Outcomes,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 38, no. 2 (2019): 338–65, https://doi.org/10.1002/pam.22116.
Finally, police in schools have particular ramifications for students of color, with mounting evidence of more severe consequences for both of the impacts described: criminalization of students and worsened academic outcomes. In Texas, for example, there were almost 2,500 incidents in which SROs used force against students between 2011 and 2015. Over this period, Black students made up just 13 percent of the Texas public school student body yet were victims in 40 percent of SRO use-of-force incidents.90Deborah Fowler et al., “Dangerous Discipline: How Texas Schools Are Relying on Law Enforcement, Courts, and Juvenile Probation to Discipline Students,” Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children, December 14, 2016, https://report.texasappleseed.org/dangerous-discipline/.
Beyond use of force, students of color also often face other disproportionate impacts of policing in schools.91Emily M. Homer and Benjamin W. Fisher, “Police in Schools and Student Arrest Rates across the United States: Examining Differences by Race, Ethnicity, and Gender,” Journal of School Violence 19, no. 2 (April 2, 2020): 192–204, https://doi.org/10.1080/15388220.2019.1604377. Black students are three times more likely to be arrested than white students, while Indigenous students are twice as likely as white students to be arrested. Latinx students were also more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts.92Whitaker et al., “Cops and No Counselors.”
The disproportionate treatment of students of color is not due to disproportionate misconduct. There is, in fact, no evidence that higher rates of misbehavior among these students account for the far higher likelihood of their being disciplined by school police compared with their white peers.93Fowler et al., “Dangerous Discipline”; Nora Gordon, “Disproportionality in Student Discipline: Connecting Policy to Research,” Brookings (blog), January 18, 2018, https://brook.gs/3dlLak7.
Policing in schools disproportionately affects other students belonging to historically marginalized groups as well. Students with disabilities are almost three times more likely to be subject to school arrest than students without disabilities.94Whitaker et al., “Cops and No Counselors.” Research has also found that LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming students often report feeling hostility from law enforcement in schools and have a higher likelihood of being stopped by police, suspended, expelled, or arrested.95Lambda Legal, “Protected and Served?,” 2015, https://www.lambdalegal.org/protected-and-served/; Kathryn E. W. Himmelstein and Hannah Brückner, “Criminal-Justice and School Sanctions against Nonheterosexual Youth: A National Longitudinal Study,” Pediatrics 127, no. 1 (January 1, 2011): 49–57, https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2009-2306.
All members of school staff play a role in creating a safe and orderly school environment. Using police for general discipline and to make up for staffing shortages in terms of hall, playground, and lunchroom monitors as well as mental health and guidance counselors, can have consequences for students on multiple levels. Given the potential for harmful interaction between students and security personnel, SROs, including armed law enforcement, should be seen as a last resort in school safety priorities.
Students, as well as all members of the school community, deserve schools that are safe and secure, and the necessary function of school safety should be separated from policing and police forces. This may mean that a school retains security personnel to maintain safety in the school environment and confront armed intruders. And also that schools invest in proven school interventions, such as crisis assessment/prevention programs, emergency planning, robust mental health support for students in crisis, and building a trusting school environment where students are willing to come forward when they hear something concerning as means of reducing school shootings.
In districts where schools choose to or are required to have the presence of some sort of security, for the reasons outlined here, Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that they have an exclusively protective role and be integrated within the school community, be answerable directly to school leaders, and receive training as peace officers with extensive focus on interacting with the school population and de-escalation and minimum use of force techniques.
Student-Involved Shooter Drills Cause Harm to Entire School Communities
In response to concerns about school shootings, many schools elect or are required to perform school shooter drills. These drills typically require students and school staff to go into lockdown and to practice specific emergency procedures, which often include staying quiet, locking the door, and turning off lights.
Since the 1999 Columbine shooting, active shooter drills have proliferated in America’s schools, with school-based shooting drills currently required in at least 40 states.96Everytown survey of state laws. But state statutes on this type of drill are often vague and leave the content and identification of who participates up to school administrators. As a result, drills vary dramatically across schools, from some that involve advance parental notification of trauma-sensitive, developmentally appropriate exercises, to others that do not notify parents in advance, deploy “masked gunmen” actors, simulate gunfire, require students as young as three and four years old to be confined in a space for long periods, and fail to inform children that they are in a drill until it is over.97Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Sophia Alvarez Boyd, and James Doubek, “Experts Worry Active Shooter Drills in Schools Could Be Traumatic for Students,” NPR, November 10, 2019, https://n.pr/2GFX3Ag.
Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA support trauma-informed training for school staff on how to respond to active shooter situations, with instruction in such areas as lockout and evacuation procedures and emergency medical training. However, almost no research affirms the value of school shooter drills involving students for either preventing school shootings or protecting the school community when shootings do occur.98Cheryl Lero Jonson, “Preventing School Shootings: The Effectiveness of Safety Measures,” Victims & Offenders 12, no. 6 (2017): 956–73, https://doi.org/10.1080/15564886.2017.1307293. And while the proof of their effectiveness is limited, evidence is mounting on their harm to entire school communities.
In order to examine these concerns using scientific methods, Everytown partnered with the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Social Dynamics and Wellbeing Lab to study the immediate and long-term impacts of active shooter drills on the health and well-being of students, teachers, and parents. Study of activity in over 100 K–12 schools found that school shooter drills can lead to alarming and sustained increases in depression, stress, anxiety, and fear of death among students, parents, and educators.99Mai ElSherief et al., “Impacts of School Shooter Drills on the Psychological Well-Being of American K–12 School Communities: A Social Media Study,” Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 8, no. 315 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-021-00993-6.
Further, school drills with students may be ineffective because the preparedness procedures are being shared with the very individuals most likely to perpetrate a school shooting: former and current students. Therefore, while training for teachers and staff on how to respond to an active shooter threat is essential, our organizations do not recommend training for students as a preventative measure. If schools choose to include students in these exercises, Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend, at a minimum, that
- Schools should create age- and developmentally appropriate drill content with the involvement of school personnel, including school-based mental health professionals.
- Schools should couple drills with trauma-informed approaches to address students’ well-being.
- Drills should not include simulations that mimic an actual incident.
- Parents should have advance notice of drills.
- Drills should be announced to students and educators prior to the start.
- Schools should track data about the efficacy and effects of these drills.
Using the comprehensive plan outlined in this report, policymakers and school communities can work together to prevent active shooter incidents—and gun violence more broadly—in their classrooms. These solutions form a thorough strategy by providing points of intervention at each level of a shooter’s escalation to violence and by creating a system where people with dangerous histories cannot easily access guns. Targeted gun violence prevention policies are designed to intervene when a shooter is intent on getting their hands on a gun. School-based strategies work to provide holistic support for students and intervene in situations where warning signs are showing a student in crisis. Finally, the planning and security strategies present a last opportunity for intervention and ensure that a school is prepared to quickly respond to and neutralize any threat.
Unlike reactive solutions focused on arming staff and teachers, which put US schoolchildren in more danger, the strategies recommended in this report are widely supported by experts and backed by evidence. Our leaders must take responsible action to keep our schools safe; this report offers them a framework for doing so.
Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.
In partnership with
American Federation of Teachers
The American Federation of Teachers is a union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities.
National Education Association
The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the United States, representing public school teachers and other support personnel, faculty and staffers at colleges and universities, retired educators, and college students preparing to become teachers.