When we send our kids off to school in the morning, there is the assumption of safety and protection. If there weren’t, we would never let them out the door. So when a tragedy like the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 20 school children happens, or more recently, the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon, it shakes us to the core. Those kids all could have been ours. When you take a deeper look at the issue of guns in schools, two facts emerge. Fact #1: Unspeakably horrific events with high fatalities like Columbine, Umpqua or Sandy Hook are rare. Fact #2: School shootings themselves are happening more than ever.
There have been at least 149 school shootings in America since the Sandy Hook tragedy, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. That includes those at K-12 schools and on college campuses.
That’s about one shooting a week since Newtown. And these stats don’t really paint an accurate picture of guns in schools, since they don’t include the many, many times a student brought a gun and violence was averted.
Ultimately Our Schools are Safe
Although a 2012 CDC study found an average of seven gun-related deaths per day of infants, children and teens in the United States and in 2015 for the first time, more young people (under the age of 25) will die from guns than from cars—only a tiny percentage of these deaths happen at school. Class is one of the safest places for a kid to be, says John Kelly, PhD, a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of School Psychologists. “When you really look at the research, the reality is a very small percentage of violence that affects kids actually occurs in a school setting,” he says. “While those horrific national stories gain needed and appropriate attention, unfortunately they can paint a picture of schools being a violent place.”
Less than one percent of student homicides and suicides occurred at school, on the way to school or at school-sponsored events according to the CDC. And during the 2009-2010 school year, the odds of a student aged 5–18 being the victim of a school-associated homicide was one in 2.5 million. Compare that to the odds of a 5- to 19-year-old being killed in a motor vehicle accident that year, one in 16,000 and you’ll understand just how small the risk.
Guns in NJ Schools: The facts
There were six handgun incidents in New Jersey public schools in 2013-2014, according the state Department of Education Commissioner’s Annual Report of Violence, Vandalism and Substance Abuse in NJ Public Schools.
No injuries were reported because of those incidents, and the weapons were confiscated at the entrance of the building in
two of them. Air guns (including BB and pellet guns) or imitation guns, while also not common, were detected more frequently than real ones, with 81 air gun and 25 imitation gun incidents.
The New Jersey Department of Education says it doesn’t collect data on specific towns or districts involved, or on how many metal detectors and other safety equipment have been bought and installed by schools around the state. But according to a 2013 New Jersey School Board Association Task Force survey of 273 local school officials, a majority of New Jersey districts have beefed up security. More than 85 percent of respondents answered “yes” to the question “Has your school district implemented new security measures since the December 14, 2012 [Sandy Hook] incident in Newtown, Connecticut?” These measures have included things like electronic access systems and closed-circuit cameras, changes to windows and doors, and emergency alert plans.
But sometimes the unthinkable does happen in NJ schools. In the South Orange-Maplewood School District, there were gun incidents in two separate schools two days in a row this summer. On June 3, a Maplewood Middle School student was arrested for bringing a 9-millimeter Glock handgun loaded with hollow-point bullets onto campus. The very next day, a Columbia High School ninth-grader was taken into custody for coming to class with an Airsoft gun (a realistic-looking firearm replica that can shoot plastic and aluminum pellets) and a kitchen knife.
Both times, the school was placed on lockdown while police searched the campus.
In the aftermath of those events, John Ramos, PhD, superintendent of the South Orange-Maplewood School District, says administrators took a hard look at the handling of the incidents and their security protocol in general.
“Whenever an issue like that arises, any school district will review its reaction and processes to assess whether or not there were any mistakes, and how the system could be improved,” he says. “After that review, what became clear is that it would be important to reinforce the crisis intervention policies we have and make sure everyone is focused on those policies.”
Ramos calls the events of last spring “a good wakeup call” for his district to refocus on safety and crisis prevention. “Security is a concern, period,” he says. “Guns are a concern, period. We always have to be vigilant.”
In 2010, then Governor Jon Corzine signed into law P.L. 2009, c.178, commonly referred to as the School Security Drill Law, which requires every school in the New Jersey to conduct a minimum of one fire drill and one security drill each month that class is in session. Each of the following types of security drills must be conducted a minimum of two times per year: Active shooter, evacuation, bomb threat and lockdown. Schools are required to conduct a security drill within 15 days of the beginning of the year. According to a 2015 New Jersey School Task Force Report, this state is one of only 10 that require these procedures.
Feeling Safe at School
It’s critical for schools to account for appropriate physical safety measures, says Kelly. But what’s also important is that those measures are balanced with psychological ones, he says. Kids need to be safe, but they also need to feel safe at school.
“Research tells us that the physical measures alone don’t help kids feel safe, and in fact, in some instances, they can actually foster a culture of un-safety, or danger,” he explains.
Dr. David J. Schonfeld, the founder and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, which specializes in providing support to kids and schools after crises, concurs, saying the security measures schools take should be “practical and appropriate,” using “common sense.”
“In some situations, schools have used strategies and approaches in the name of trying to prepare children that have been misguided,” says Schonfeld, a pediatrician and member of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission. He points to surprise “live” drills, in which children are led to believe that there are actually armed shooters in their schools, as being simply cruel to kids, and in no way appropriate. That kind of traumatic situation can erode students’ trust in their school’s staff, and won’t help kids feel safe and secure, he says.
“The way in which schools explain to kids what’s happening is critical,” says Kelly. Teachers should tell the students the security guards are just safeguards to protect them. “That’s an important message for the kids to get, that the school is taking measures to make sure they’re safe,” he says.
Another vital violence prevention measure: In additon to physical and emotional support, schools need to create an environment where kids feel they can bring problems and conflict of any kind to their teachers and guidance counselors.
As a parent, says Kelly, you should be asking: What’s the climate like at my kids’ school, and what does it offer students who are struggling?
What mechanisms are in place to address “low level aggressions” like teasing, taunting, harassment and other forms of bullying? When something comes up, do students feel like it’s okay to talk to someone?
Why is this so incredibly important? Because, says Kelly, it’s often this type of low-level aggression that leads to larger incidents of violence. Furthermore, he adds, “in most cases when a student engaged in a school shooting, they let someone know about it beforehand.”
Indeed, a 2004 report by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education found that in over three-quarters of school shootings, at least one person knew that the attacker was thinking about or planning the school attack. In nearly two-thirds of the incidents, more than one person had knowledge, whether it was being aware that something “big” or “bad” was going to happen, or knowing the actual date and time. In nearly all of these cases, those people were peers—an adult had information about the plan in only two cases.
A Problem of Prevention
“There have been a lot of different approaches to security on the local, state and national levels,” says Diana Trasatti, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Chapter of Moms Demand Action who worked as a school counselor in New Jersey. But, Trasatti says, no matter how on top of the situation schools are security-wise, the real danger is easy access to guns. In the United States, she says, prevention is a huge part of the picture—keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, the majority of K–12 school shootings involve a firearm that a kid got at home. More than a third of shootings begin as confrontations at school and escalate because a gun was accessible to a kid.
That’s even more sobering when you take into consideration a study published in Pediatrics showing that about 1.7 million children under the age of 18 live in homes with loaded, unlocked guns (not incidentally, making them 16 times more likely to be killed in unintentional shootings than in other high-income countries).
Schools are “gun-free zones” under the 1990 federal Gun-Free School Zones Act. And according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence—a national, nonprofit organization, after federal legislation restricting guns in schools was adopted in the early 1990s, fewer students were carrying guns, and school-associated student homicide rates decreased significantly.
Furthermore, states with “child access prevention laws” (which make it a crime to leave a gun accessible to a minor) have lower incidences of shootings, according to Trasatti. One study found that in 12 states where such laws had been in effect for at least a year, unintentional firearm deaths fell by 23 percent from 1990-1994 among children under 15. Many states have legislation making it a crime to leave a gun accessible to a child. But, according to The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, those state laws vary wildly in their effectiveness.
New Jersey makes it a misdemeanor to leave a firearm in a place where an adult knows a minor under 16 years of age could gain reasonable access to it. However, the minor must actually get the gun for the person to be criminally liable. Other states, like California, impose some level of liability, even if the child doesn’t touch the firearm, making it more of a deterrent.
As of 2014, several bills are pending to strengthen penalties for violations of NJ’s child access prevention law.
The Big Picture
Unfortunately, no matter how much schools work to control their environments, the reality is that what goes on around us creeps into the classroom, says Ramos. “Schools are a microcosm of society,” he says. “We try to protect our students and insulate them from external factors, while at the same time, those external factors are pervasive.”
Ramos encourages parents to be part of the solution and talk to our kids directly about the dangers of gun violence. “Perhaps even consider advocating both locally and nationally for laws that would prevent the flow of illegal weapons to our children,” adds Ramos. “It is so incredibly easy for kids to access guns, and that just should not be.”
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