Twenty years ago, 13 souls were lost on the Colorado campus of Columbine High School, and a nation lost its innocence. Never in the age of 24-hour television had we seen such horror. The images of parents arriving at the school, trying desperately to locate their children, is seared in to our memories.
Much has changed in the past 20 years in the practice of school safety, but what have we learned? Are our kids actually any safer?
Since Columbine, law enforcement has learned that they no longer simply secure the perimeter and wait for the SWAT team to arrive. They go in to save children. The sooner law enforcement can engage and stop a killer, the safer our kids are.
School administrators have learned to look for the signs that a student might be a threat. The process is referred to as a threat assessment, and such assessments are on the increase in schools nationwide. In the school district where Columbine High School sits, threat assessments have increased ten-fold in the past 10 years.
School safety experts promote training in lockdowns, lockouts, and shelter-in-place. Their goal is to make the school appear empty to an armed assailant. By all accounts, there has never been a teacher or child shot in a classroom that was locked down. Some districts train a more aggressive protocol, called Run, Hide, Fight. This protocol offers some resistance, and a more proactive mindset than simply locking down the classroom and waiting. However, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network is concerned about the ongoing traumatic impact of these drills on the school children.
Survivors of school massacres, from Columbine to Parkland, want to do whatever it takes to stop it from happening again. Thousands of hours of news coverage were given to the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School students who rallied for gun control in the weeks and months following the Valentines Day murder of 17 students and staff. Less coverage was given to those who look to solutions other than gun control.
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow died that day in Parkland, FL, pointed to the levels of failure and “gutlessness” of school officials and law enforcement. Sounds harsh, but there were significant failures at every level.
Evan Todd, the first student shot in the library at Columbine, is an advocate for armed teachers (and other staff) in schools. Now married, with a son of his own, he wants it to never be a question whether someone is on campus to protect his son, if a shooter makes it to his school.
Despite all of the new policies and laws that are supposed to make schools safer, according to a recent poll, 67% of parents feel schools are less safe than they were 10 years ago. Additionally, 57% of teens fear a school shooting at their school. Although the chance of any child being a victim in a school massacre is infinitesimally small, the impact is huge. Any child death is very painful to the family, and to the broader society, but children killed at school feels even worse to us.
The media is of no help. These school killers want notoriety. They want to outdo previous records of body count. Even 20 years later, two former students in Brazil cited Columbine as their inspiration for killing 7 at their school. Just yesterday, a disturbed young woman from Florida flew to Colorado and made Columbine-style threats, causing 500,000 students to be kept out of school due to closures. Today, the media is broadcasting her name and face. The No Notoriety movement asks media to stop using the names and faces of the killers. They want notoriety. They must be denied.
There is a growing nationwide trend of arming school staff. These aren't School Resource Officers or armed security guards. They are school employees who are authorized by their school boards or administrators to carry concealed on campus. FASTER Saves Lives in Ohio has brought these policies to light with its training program. Since 2012, they have trained over 2,000 school staffers in Ohio. We brought that same program to Colorado in 2017. In a recent poll, 41% of respondents said they support trained, armed staff members. Even the 458-page report that came out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, called specifically for arming school staff.
In July 2017, Colorado’s “Claire Davis Act” took effect. Named for Claire Davis, the sole student killed in 2013 at Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver, the act allows parents and victims to sue a school if it “fail(s) to ensure the safety of staff and students.” This has left school districts in Colorado playing a guessing game of what it means to ensure the safety of their campuses. Parents expect schools return their children alive every day.
Statistically, school related homicides are extremely rare. But schools should set a goal of zero students and staff killed. Then make the plan. Schools should assume every day that someone is out there who wants to harm their students. They must have a plan to stop school killers before they consider their crime, stop them before they come on to campus, and stop them from killing if they get on to campus. Zero students or staff killed in school-related violence is the only acceptable goal.