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Everytown Research reports that information contributed by “the New York Police Department’s review of active shooter incidents found that in 75% of these incidents, the shooter or shooters were school-aged and were current or former students of the school.”

This means that active shooters in schools are very often students within our sphere of influence. 

In addition, many of the efforts schools seem to be promoting in keeping students safe are either not helpful, or in some cases, proving to do more harm than good.  

Building strong connections, having an inclusive environment for all stakeholders, and reaching those students who could potentially become violent are the keys to building safer schools. No security officer, no specially made doors or windows, no building remodel program, and no drill can be more effective than creating a sense of belonging for each student within a school community. 

Building Community From the Top Down

The leadership required to build a true community within a district begins at the top. Boards and superintendents are tasked with the responsibility to show care and concern for their administration team, teachers, staff, families, and students. Unfortunately, in many communities, this care and concern can get lost in the shuffle and day-to-day business of the district. 

Yet studies show that a district with unhappy, overworked, underappreciated teachers will not be a safe, productive environment for students. 

Every person within the umbrella of the district has to feel ownership in order to commit to the greater collective good of the group. In some places, this connectivity may require some restructuring, creating smaller communities within the larger group. This can be done not only by school, department, or grade level, but by including more stakeholders overall in offering feedback and being used in problem-solving.

There may be many of these opportunities in place, but it hasn’t been well-publicized. Board meetings may be largely public, but not well attended for a variety of reasons. Decisions may not be communicated well throughout the district, but just placed on a website that no one ever visits.

In order to build a community, leaders have to be intentional about their inclusion of all stakeholders, not just making information available but actually actively inviting stakeholders to participate. 

Leadership should be proactive, including teachers and staff members in their decision-making and keeping their welfare a main priority. The same is true of other members of the district administration team, including campus administrators.

Many leaders and administrators truly do try to abide by this, but teachers, parents, and students may not know how hard they are working or what exactly they are doing. Communication needs to be flowing healthily in both directions for a true community to be formed. 

There is often a large disconnect between a teacher’s classroom, or a student’s home,  and the superintendent’s office. That gap needs to be bridged, and the larger responsibility for making that happens must be taken by those with the most power. In turn, principals should extend that connectivity to teachers and staff, and teachers can then offer it to assistants and students. 

This trickle-down effect can go a very long way in making students feel more connected and vital parts to the school community. Teachers can also form smaller communities within the larger community.

Some schools use the British method made popular worldwide in fiction such as the Harry Potter series, creating “houses” or “families” within the school. Rather than only organizing students by age and grade-level (or as Sir Ken Robinson calls it in one of his famous TEDtalks, “expiration date” ), year in school, or subject being studied, smaller communities can be formed that will include teachers and students from the first day they attend a particular school to the last.

Creating smaller microcosms or communities where people are grouped together for longer than ten to twelve months at a time, and everything from discipline and academics to mental and physical health are handled within the society built by those participants, is an amazing way to create bonds that  can last forever. When used positively, this could mean the difference between a student being involved and a part of the community, or a student being involved in violence. 

Another component within this conversation is the role police officers and safety resource officers play within the school setting. This is a position that has received a lot of attention recently and we thought we’d devote a separate article to it because there is much advice and discussion about it right now.  Look for that article here on our blog. 

Building Community From the Inside Out

Many places are starting to incorporate the community within the school by inviting groups that have a shared interest and common stake in the lives of the families of school aged children. There is actually a “community school” model used by The Coalition of Community Schools in which communities work to provide not just academic services, but physical, mental and emotional health resources, as well.

In a less formal way, it’s important to bring the community “in” and have them become part of the school, as well. Whenever possible, asking for community volunteers to come in and volunteer to help with academic or other areas of need within the school can be beneficial as well. 

Once the community is being built on the inside, it’s important to reach out and continue making connection with others outside the school setting, including those outlying parents or guardians who are reluctant to spend time within the walls of the school.

Because over half of all shooters or perpetrators of gun violence within the school are people associated with the school (either students, former students, individuals working in the school themselves, or those who closely know someone working there), it’s important to reach out and make those firm connections. The closer people feel to the school community and the more they feel they are a vital part of the community, the less likely they are to violate that trust and feeling of community. 

Studies are showing that efforts to electronically monitor, shut the community out, and lockdown schools are further traumatizing students and actually heightening the fear in communities rather than fixing the problem. 

Another reason to reach out is that most active shooters, suicides, homicides, and accidental shootings occur as the result of students getting guns from their own homes, the homes of friends, or the homes of extended family members. 

Building and intentionally using relationships with the community to support the awareness of gun safety and the vital importance of responsible storage practices for gun owners has been shown to significantly reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by guns in every area (not just in relation to school). 

Schools need to be talking about gun safety as much as they do about drug awareness, sex education, vehicular safety, and fire safety. 

One such program that can be useful as a resources is Be SMART by Moms Demand Action. There may be active groups in your community with Moms Demand Action or some other group that can assist your school community with learning more about preventing gun violence. 

Establish a Threat Assessment Program

Everytown Research says that the FBI and Homeland Security, along with several other groups, recommend that every campus in every district have a working Threat Assessment Program. These programs should be comprised of procedures for each of the following areas: 

  1. Collecting Data
  2. Identifying Threats
  3. Determining Access to Weapons

Unfortunately, these procedures work like some other things in governmental agencies, and vulnerable groups of students may be unwittingly targeted. 

We’ve known for a long time that certain populations receive harsher discipline and are disciplined more often than others. Black male students are often targets in this way. Incorporating a threat assessment program is absolutely a good way to go to in order to help students who may be more likely than others to become perpetrators of violence, but any program that targets a demographic that is vulnerable needs to be carefully constructed to protect and restore students rather than make life harder for students who are already struggling. 

Counseling and Mental Health Support

Speaking of responding to threat assessment, there is currently a crisis in schools due to the stress students are experiencing. 

Part of that problem could be addressed with counselors who are able to do actual counseling rather than only functioning as test coordinators and academic advisors.

Students are desperately in need of better mental health support. In fact, this is a very valuable way in which the community could assist. We’ll be exploring this in another article soon, but there has to be more help available on a daily basis for the support of mental health for students. Until that becomes a priority, shootings will still occur, and students will continue their upward ascent in the growing numbers of those who are struggling through the every-day stress of school life. 

Rather than continuing to add to the stress these students experience, creating an environment kinder to the mental health of students may require reduced police presence, the absence of metal detectors, and the abolishment of live drills involving students (although teachers should have and practice procedures, it is advised not to require students to participate). Building the community that surrounds students can build a stronger mental and emotional foundation. 

We owe it to our students to make those investments. 

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