A horrific school shooting in Santa Clarita, Calif. on Thursday left two students dead and several others critically injured. Dozens of students were escorted with their hands up, as if leaving a war zone. Many of these young minds will live with the aftermath like anxiety, depression, and PTSD for the rest of their lives.
More than 3,000 firearm-related deaths per year in youths aged 0-19 have occurred in recent years, making firearm violence one of the top leading causes of death in youths. Every time another one happens, we revisit the same cycle of political squabbling, heated social media debates, blame games, and hypothesizing about more ineffective resource-consuming prevention strategies.
As my colleagues and I have found, we do know a lot about school shootings. In most cases, the K-12 school shooters are males, current or former students of the target school, and have a history of trauma or are suicidal. The majority have planned the act ahead of time, use guns belonging to family members, and have given warning signs or shared (leaked) plans in advance.
We also know that attempts to stop these shootings have failed and wasted resources. Millions of dollars are spent in hardening and making schools safer yet still, there is widespread confusion on what will help stop these shootings.
Five major studies we conducted at Ball State University show how prevention priorities are often misplaced and why school shootings may keep happening. First, a nationwide study showed that more than a third of American parents expect a school shooting in their child’s school in the immediate future. Parents perceived inadequate parental monitoring/rearing practices (73%), peer harassment and/or bullying (58%), inadequate mental health care services for youth (54%), and easy access to guns (51%) as major causes of firearm violence in schools. Unfortunately, school practices and policy-making to prevent shootings do not adequately involve parents, the leading stakeholders in the life of children.
Second, a study of principals across the nation found that almost a fifth of schools had experienced a firearm-related incident in the past five years (e.g. a shooting, student carrying guns, etc.). The three major barriers cited by principals in preventing firearm violence were: lack of expertise as to which practices to implement, lack of time to spend on this issue, and lack of research as to which practices are most effective. Less than half of schools trained their personnel on firearm violence issues and clearly, school leaders are at a loss when trying to find a solution.
Two more studies we recently published highlight how common weapon and firearm carrying behaviors are in youth, to the extent that thousands of students take weapons and firearms to school premises. And our major recent review of all related practices and policies found that there is no evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of most practices employed by school systems to reduce or prevent firearm violence. The return on investment remains poor, and so we will continue to have school shootings.
School shootings are a complicated problem, but we have the ability to make schools and children safer by comprehensive approaches grounded in scientific evidence. One tragedy, several lives lost on a day, and major public discussions for a week are often succeeded by a deafening and disconcerting silence until the next shooting. It is high time we invest in evidence-based solutions for our own communities and engage people from all walks of life in our neighborhoods. Adults should become memories for children — not the opposite.