While Floridians are understandably focused on the mass shooting in Parkland, American schools now experience one intentional shooting a week on school grounds. Among G7 countries, the US has experienced 288 school shootings since 2009, whereas none of the other six nations has experienced more than two of these incidents.
While enhancing school security is a legitimate short-term measure in keeping students safe, it falls seriously short of a comprehensive approach to the problem. School attacks were exceedingly rare prior to 1992 and armed security, active shooter drills, and lockdown procedures, routine in public schools today, were unheard of prior to the 1990s. Thus, security vulnerabilities alone cannot account for the surge in school shootings, as schools now adopt far more security measures than in the past.
Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has shown that 18-29 year-olds are becoming more disengaged from community life. Their church attendance, involvement in public meetings and political activities have all declined sharply from the 1970s. Young people spend more time alone than they did decades ago and more time using electronic devices than they do with family and peers. Those experiencing some form of crisis are less likely to lean on the family, place of worship, or social organizations as their ties to these institutions are weaker. Depression among the young has increased dramatically and there has been a 50 percent increase in suicide among 15-24 year-olds from 1999-2014. This is the age group most at risk to commit school attacks. There is a significant pool of alienated and depressed young people who may experience despair and act out violently following a precipitating event, such as expulsion from school, loss of a relationship, ostracism by peers, or bullying.
Coinciding with this trend toward increasing social isolation, has been increasing access to weapons designed for combat that can fire highly lethal, high velocity bullets rapidly and that, when equipped with high capacity magazines, can allow a shooter to discharge up to 100 rounds without reloading. The Parkland (Fla.) shooter obtained his AR-15 legally when he was 18, despite numerous disturbing actions and calls to law enforcement.
The combination of a large pool of at-risk youth and easy access to highly lethal weapons is a recipe for the mass casualty shootings we have seen. Yet legislators, driven by short-term considerations, are often indifferent to the social factors driving this trend and unwilling to risk the political consequences associated with confronting an intransigent gun lobby that resists even the most popular and modest attempts at gun regulation. Following Parkland, Floridians are primarily offered enhanced school security on a low budget, along with the option of armed school personnel.
There are numerous “soft” targets for shooters, apart from schools, including theaters, shopping malls, clubs, airports, and stadiums. Thus, hardening schools alone fails to address the risks to which other citizens are exposed and may place other targets at increased risk as perpetrators seek less fortified targets. Many schools around the country already have adopted some basic security measures. In Florida, after the Parkland mass shooting, just $100 million has been allocated for school security, or about $25,000 per public school–enough to install about a dozen security doors in classrooms.
A serious effort to enhance school security involves access control protocols (screening all who enter a school), surveillance through monitored cameras and patrols, adequate perimeter security, intrusion detection systems, security doors and bullet-resistant windows, adequately trained and properly armed security personnel; emergency communications, and lockdown procedures. Turning schools into prison-like facilities is prohibitively expensive, creates more fear and disruption for students and teachers, and fundamentally alters the learning environment.
In the unlikely event we went down this path, we would only mitigate risk of one type of soft target–schools. Until we address the factors that drive school shooters and the easy access to weapons capable of mass slaughter, the promise of a safer society will be unfulfilled.
Thomas Gabor is a criminologist and author of Confronting Gun Violence in America. This article was originally published in South Florida’s Sun Sentinel.