The massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., is so atrocious and painful that it invokes an hysterical urge to “do something.”
“Anything!” our tormented empathy cries out.
But frantic feelings and unbridled emotions do not good policy make. The cold light of analysis must supersede the hot tears of desperation if whatever is to be done actually produces some good effect.
There are hard realities and stubborn facts about school massacres. Mass school shootings as we know them today are almost entirely local events, as unpredictable as lightning strikes, and utter anomalies when viewed against the vast K-12 education universe in America.
Concerns over “safe schools” are misguided. In Florida, Miami Southridge High School has far more violence and expulsions than Stoneman Douglas, and is located in a neighborhood with a violent crime rate 15 times higher than Parkland’s.
Top-down, traditional indicators are totally ineffective in assigning risk of mass school shootings. Here’s why.
In this century, worldwide there have been at least 56 school massacres (defined as a mass shooting with students as the targets resulting in at least two fatalities); 18 of those occurred in the U.S.
Of those 18, eight involved massacres committed on K-12 campuses, which resulted in the deaths of 69 American children and adults. Those eight incidents and 69 murders are spread out over 17 years, across 130,000 different school facilities, attended by roughly 50 million students every single year.
You don’t have to be a statistical analyst to begin to understand the degree of difficulty in trying to accurately anticipate or prepare for when and where the next incident might occur.
Add in the 45 people injured in the eight 21st century school massacres, and the resulting 114 casualties represent 0.0000021 (barely 2 ten-thousandths of 1 percent) of all U.S. K-12 students and teachers.
In the same time period, there have been more than 285,000 murders in the U.S., of which nearly 30,000 victims were age 18 or younger. For those seeking to stop the slaughter of children, the cause is a worthy one: 100 times as many kids as died at Parkland will be massacred this year in the U.S.
The chilling actuality is that the day before the Parkland attack, about 47 people were murdered across the country. And 47 more the day after. And every day since.
School massacres are still singularly heinous crimes, however, and we must do everything we can to prevent them. That begins with analyzing and better understanding their singularity.
In all but one of the U.S. K-12 school massacres since 2000, the shooter was a student or former student at the targeted school. This is critical because it drastically localizes prevention efforts.
Trying to guard against transient adult strangers attacking randomly selected schools would forever be an impossible impracticality. Protecting against attackers that are already known to many in the school—staff, teachers, other students—is much more achievable.
In hindsight, most mass school shooters left red flags galore, and had someone somehow been able to connect the dots, their massacres might have been averted.
Knowing who that person might be, and keeping him away from both guns and schools, is the best approach to stopping school massacres. To acquire that knowledge, we must overcome a couple of traditional obstacles.
One involves rethinking juvenile law’s foundational assumptions. We must start distinguishing between merely delinquent and truly violent juveniles, and share that information in real time with school staff. Likewise, anytime a student is expelled for physical violence or anything involving a weapon or other disturbed behaviors, that should trigger placement on a school violence watch list.
Had such lists previously been implemented, all of this century’s school massacre shooters except one would’ve been on them. If watch lists were put in place now, the likelihood of spotting warning signals and connecting dots for potentially dangerous students would increase exponentially.
Prohibit students or former students on the watch list from bringing backpacks or bags to school. Search them and their lockers and cars more often. Regularly inspect and surveil their Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook activity.
The safety of students should constitute a clear and compelling state interest in keeping a closer eye on observed behavioral dangers from a school’s own records—which is where the mass school shooters are coming from.
Lawmakers can bloviate and legislate for the 50 million American students who will never become mass shooters, because it’s “something” national politicians can do.
Meantime, one of those 50 million kids is contemplating shooting up one of the nation’s 130,000 schools. Lookouts in Washington, D.C., will never see him coming.
But at his school, he’s already been noticed as acting disturbed. He may have been expelled. He’s had some juvenile scrapes with the law, possibly involving animal cruelty. Classmates have noticed weird, alarming posts from him online.
The Florida sheriff pleaded, “if you see something, say something,” and he’s right.
Our juvenile courts and school disciplinary systems already see plenty of potential red flags. We must change policies and processes so administrators and teachers and safety officers can see and connect them.