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What Parkland made America forget about school shootings

If the federal government can do one thing, it is to engage researchers to do deep data mining of every thwarted, attempted, interrupted, or successful school attack


Students visit memorial for Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting victims on February 23, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.


It has been said, sardonically, that if you can keep your head while all those around you are in a panic, then you may not understand how bad things really are. The loss of 17 innocent lives in Parkland, Florida, has so shaken our citizenry that almost any statement made is attacked as insensitive, short-sighted, or partisan. We humans lose the long view when tragedy is in our face.

Remember: Schools are still safe

On Valentine’s Day, there were about 36,000 high schools with about 40 million students where there was no shooting. Schools continue to be the safest place, statistically, for a child to be. Crime rates overall are still among the lowest in decades in the U.S., with alarming increases in violent crimes attributable to a handful of major urban areas.

As many commentators have pointed out, the inclusion of robberies on or near school grounds, domestic violence, suicide, accidental discharges and after-hours incidents can inflate the perception of danger in our schools.

We also know that sheltering in place is still the safest strategy during a school attack. In a review of fatalities on school property, after eliminating suicides and killings of specific targets resulting from domestic disputes, we can calculate that students are safest behind a locked door with their teachers.

Remember: Mass shootings differ widely

Parkland is now added to the list of the 10 most deadly mass shootings in the U.S. The list, going back to the Texas tower sniper, includes an outdoor concert, a night club, a large university, a McDonald’s restaurant, a clinic, a postal service facility, a church, an elementary school and a restaurant.

Beyond the top 10, there are a few more educational facilities, military facilities, homes and killings that meet the definition by having occurred at multiple locations within a short period of time.

Crafting changes that seem to address our most recent tragedies are not likely to cover all the ingredients of all mass shootings.

Remember: Tactics for today’s tragedy are formed from yesterday’s event

As has often been said about military operations, we’re trained and equipped to fight the last war.

We all know about the post-Columbine transition from perimeter holding to active engagement, but we should also look at the rationale for all our current policy and tactics:

  • Have we paid attention to lessons learned from drills and false alarms and responses to lesser calls for service to our schools?
  • Can we articulate why we do the tedious room-by-room clearance based on probabilities of an unknown harmer remaining?
  • Do we know why we march students out in an evacuation with hands up rather than allow them to remain protected in their classrooms when a threat is probably over?
  • Must we bus students to multiple locations for reunification?
  • Does our communication plan recognize that the majority of students and parents are making their own plans by text?
  • Do any of our classroom drills involve complex decision making that is not likely to be mentally possible under fire?
  • Are systems in place to react within the 2-5 minutes that most school shootings last?
  • Does it matter that the shooter will likely be a current or former student and know the active shooter protocol?

If we do the same thing long enough without evaluating, we will end up looking foolish for something whose purpose we can’t explain.

Remember: What has shown to be effective in preventing attacks

We should be examining known cases where attacks were prevented or interrupted to find out what strategies worked.

Solutions that involve an armed presence as a deterrent may not work on a killer who fully expects to die during or after attack. What more glorious way to exit than a precipitated suicidal encounter with an armed guard, police officer, or teacher? Do we forget all of the attacks on places already staffed by guardians?

Are effective threat assessment protocols embedded across organizations that may hold key data that is shareable under existing privacy rules? Have best practices been established, proven, and replicated?

Most school shootings are not the mass casualty events that disturb us the most. Students were the target in fewer than half the shootings, with faculty or staff members the target 60% of the time. The motives of mass killers and those with specific targets – resulting in “collateral damage” – defy easy categorization and, therefore, complicate deterrent strategies.

We have also forgotten that there were debates about the role of police officers in schools. Some districts didn’t want officers to be armed. Others wanted officers to be educators with no role in discipline or law enforcement. Have we seen a tendency to park less effective officers at schools as a semi-retirement position? How do we prevent complacency while a guard waits for something that is statistically highly unlikely?

Remember: The Secret Service Study

In 2004, the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education published The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States.

The most profound statement in this in-depth study is on page 19 of the report: “There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence.”

In addition the study showed “A history of having been the subject of a mental health evaluation, diagnosed with a mental disorder, or involved in substance abuse did not appear to be prevalent among attackers. However, most attackers showed some history of suicidal attempts or thoughts, or a history of feeling extreme depression or desperation. Only one-third of attackers had ever received a mental health evaluation and fewer than one-fifth had been diagnosed with mental health or behavior disorder prior to the attack.”

Claims that most shooters were on medication have not been substantiated. Even if true, the fact that 1 in 6 American adults are taking psychiatric medications precludes any assumptions about their effects on violence. There are more women than men on these medications, but most killers are men. Additionally, we can’t claim that killers are both medicated and that their mental health has been ignored. One assumption precludes the other.

Decisions for the future

Answers won’t come from our emotions. They won’t come from drastic measures that seriously impinge on the civil liberties of the mentally ill, gun owners, or the entertainment industry. The answers will come from facts, and we just don’t have enough of them.

The logical fallacy that because one thing precedes another, the first thing necessarily is the cause of the second thing, must not be the guiding principle for policy change. We can be certain that there is not one cause, or two, or three that create these violent storms.

If the federal government can do one thing, it is to engage researchers to do deep data mining of every thwarted, attempted, interrupted, or successful school attack. The broad categories measured in the currently available studies of these events has not yielded true commonalities that can be addressed in prevention and deterrence strategies. If there is a constellation that can predict these events, we must find it.

Critics will cry that we don’t have time for that kind of research. Indeed, we will face more tragedies, but merely hoping that we can shoot them on the sidewalk before they get to their targets, institutionalize them involuntarily, or keep certain guns out of their hands is simply not immediately possible.

We all know that decisions under the influence of crushing emotion are the least wise, but the demand for some resolution to what seems to be an overwhelming and urgent crisis is on our policy makers and politicians and may result in decisions without the necessary rational perspective. A false sense of security driven by useless answers would be the worst possible outcome.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.