The tragic shooting at Oxford High School has produced significant discussions about the responsibility of schools and school officials for the prevention of shootings by students. It has also generated proposals for how to improve protective measures at schools. Too often these discussions neglect close attention to two other issues:
1) How are schools as educational institutions affected by responses to the threat of gun violence?
2) What is the fundamental root cause that enables mass shootings at schools (and elsewhere in society)? Namely, the easy access to firearms in the United States and the unnecessary lethality of the firearms available to the civilians in terms of rapidity of firing, velocity of bullets, and capacity of ammunition magazines.
Here are a few issues we should consider with respect to #1 (impact on education) while we also remind ourselves to address #2 (easy availability of firearms) instead of limiting our focus to increasing school security.
What is the impact on children’s educational experiences when we focus on the “bunkerization” of schools as the sole or primary means to limit the risk of school shootings?
How do we want children to view their time at school? Metal detectors, police officers in the hallways, and frequent “active shooter” emergency drills pose risks for students’ educational experiences. What are the consequences for learning when we constantly remind students that schools are places for feeling afraid rather than places for cultivating enthusiasm about learning?
Have our lax gun policies placed us in the position where we must think about safety measures in schools? Yes, certainly. But are there other things we can do to reduce the risks and fears generated by our steady move toward turning schools into security bunkers? Yes. Also focus significant attention on reducing the ease of availability and lethality of firearms. In other words, seriously consider safe storage laws that pressure gun owners to keep their firearms inaccessible to teens and children. Reduce the lethality of available firearms with limits on both gun magazine capacity and weapons of war that have enhanced lethality from rapid firing and high velocity bullets. Enact Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) laws to enable judges to order the temporary removal of firearms from homes when there is evidence of personal crises or serious mental health issues in families.
How does a preoccupation with the “bunkerization” of schools affect the roles and duties of teachers?
The police reform movement in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis heightened awareness of the many duties and burdens imposed on police officers as frontline public servants on the nation’s streets. In particular, there has been an increasing realization that police are not well-positioned by training or orientation to handle situations involving people suffering from emotional crises or mental illness. In the context of police reform, many cities are moving to reduce the range of duties imposed on police officers by moving specific responsibilities to social workers, mental health counselors, and unarmed neighborhood service providers.
By contrast, a sole or primary focus on turning schools into security bunkers serves to increase the range of roles and responsibilities for teachers. Individuals who entered the teaching profession because of their commitment to educating young people now find themselves spending hours of the professional training time on matters related to “active shooter” responses, assessing the mental health of students, and following new protocols on reporting their suspicions. For a number of years now, some commentators have advocated firearms training for teachers and access to firearms for teachers in schools. Mixed into this new range of unsought responsibilities is the risk of being subjected to lawsuits if a tragedy happens. (I do not express any views on the merits of the lawsuits recently filed related to the Oxford High School shooting. The Oxford example merely highlights the fact that teachers may be facing new risks of litigation expenses and legal liability.)
We already see teachers leaving the field of education amid the pressures and burdens of their experiences during the pandemic. How can we work to increase the likelihood that teachers can focus on teaching and limit unwanted additional burdens placed upon them? We need to also focus significant attention on reducing the ease of availability and lethality of firearms. If we just accept that we must have all kinds of guns virtually everywhere in the hands of just about anyone, then the roles of teachers will continue to change in ways that do not enhance their focus on education. In that process, teaching is likely to become less attractive as a career for our best college students.
What increased risks do we face by focusing on the “bunkerization” of schools?
One frequent suggestion for increasing security at schools focuses on widening the use of police officers assigned to schools, commonly known as School Resource Officers (SROs) and new proposals in the legislature aim to add tens of millions in funding for such officers (French and Oosting, 2021). Reports on the Oxford shooting indicate that the SRO responded to the shooting event and took the shooter into custody (“A School Resource Officer,” 2021). Of course, there can never be a guarantee that the SRO will reach the scene of the emergency quickly or that the SRO will act heroically. There were many reports about an SRO at the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting in 2018 who stayed away from the sound of the gunfire. He subsequently lost his job and still faces criminal charges for the incident (Riess and Alonso, 2021). Fear would seem to be a natural response to gunfire, even for many of those trained individuals wearing uniforms who are carrying firearms.
The foregoing example is not intended to imply that SROs cannot have value. It merely shows the uncertainty about their role and effectiveness depending on the individual officer and the context in which a school shooting occurred. Of greater relevance is the academic literature on the potential impact of SROs on the school environment. Research shows that the presence of SROs in a school can turn typical school disciplinary matters normally handled by a principal into unnecessary contacts with the criminal justice system for adolescents whose lives are thereby deeply affected and tarnished in the process (Ryan, Katsiyannis, Counts, and Shelnut, 2018). When teachers are driven by fears of school shootings AND fears of being fired or sued for failing to report suspicious behavior, there are risks of teachers overreporting such behaviors in order to protect themselves. In one sense, this may be prudent and cautious in order to protect public safety. In another sense, however, we also increase the likelihood of feeding non-violent troubled children into damaging contacts with the criminal justice system rather than to the mental health counseling that they need. In addition, much like research on the actions of police officers in other contexts, there are concerns about risks that SROs will engage in discriminatory conduct when deciding to use force against students or feed young people into the criminal justice system (Fisher et al, 2020).
What about arming teachers or making guns available inside schools for use by teachers and administrators in an “active shooter” situation? This suggestion raises a whole host of problems. What is the risk to bystanders if educators with much less training than law enforcement officers engage in shootouts in school hallways when trying to stop an active shooter? What are the risks of life-threatening accidental discharge incidents, such as the examples of a Michigan law enforcement officer’s weapon accidentally discharging in a school gym (“Off-Duty Flint Officer,” 2018) or a college professor shooting himself (and thankfully not any students in the classroom) when he dropped his gun while lecturing to a class (Bryce, 2014)? What are the risks of firearms being left unsecured in a school, such as the Michigan sheriff who left his gun in a school locker after participating in a sporting event at the school (Associated Press, 2018)? What are the risks of guns being stolen by students, potentially leading to suicides, accidental shootings and criminal events? What are the risks that educators will misperceive situations and use firearms unnecessarily or with tragic results? Even trained police officers make mistakes based on misperceptions, fears, or overreactions. For example, a police officer in Colorado killed a man during an “active shooter” event, not realizing he was shooting and killing the hero who had just intervened to stop the actual shooter (Tucker, 2021).
As indicated by these examples concerning SROs and placing guns in schools, a sole or primary focus on school security may actually increase certain kinds of risks. What else can we do to try to decrease the risk of school shootings? Again, we should not limit our focus to security. We should not passively accept that guns should be virtually everywhere and accessible to virtually everyone. We need to also focus significant attention on reducing the ease of availability and lethality of firearms through safe storage laws, Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) laws, and limitations on magazine capacity and weapons of war in the hands of civilians.
We owe it to our children—and our educators—to think beyond merely turning schools into security bunkers.
Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President
Associated Press, “Sheriff Apologizes for Accidentally Leaving Gun at School,” Detroit Free Press, March 13, 2018 (freep.com)
Bryce, “ISU Prof with Concealed Weapons Permit Who Accidentally Shot His Foot in Class Is Identified,” Idaho State Journal, September 4, 2014 (idahostatejournal.com)
Fisher, E. Higgins, A. Kupchik, S. Viano, F. Curran, S. Overstreet, B. Plumlee, and B. Coffey, “Protecting the Flock or Policing the Sheep? Differences in School Resource Officers’ Perceptions of Threats by School Racial Composition.” Social Problems. (published online pending publication of print version).
French and J. Oosting, “Michigan House Seeks $50 Million for School Police After Oxford Shooting,” The Bridge, December 2, 2021 (bridgemi.com)
“Off-Duty Flint Officer Enters Plea in Accidental Firearms Discharge,” WHMI Radio, August 18, 2018 (whim.com)
Riess and M. Alonso, “Judge Says Case Against Former Parkland School Resource Officer Scot Peterson Can Go to Trial,” WISH-TV, August 20, 2021 (wishtv.com)
Ryan, A. Katsiyannis, J. Counts, and J. Shelnut, “The Growing Concerns Regarding School Resource Officers, Intervention in School and Clinic 53 (2018): 188-192.
“A School Resource Officer Helped Capture the Suspect in Oxford. How Many Local Schools Have Them?,” WXYZ-TV, December 8, 2021 (wxyz.com)
Tucker, “Colorado Officer Not Charged for Fatally Shooting ‘Heroic’ Man Who Killed Gunman,” CNN, November 11, 2021 (cnn.com)