We Never Thought It Could Happen Here

For more than a decade, major acts of weapons violence have occurred in American public and private schools. There have been hostage situations, multiple-victim shootings, and detonations of explosive devices in our nation’s schools. In some years, all three types of incidents have occurred. Following the intensive media coverage of the mass shooting at Pearl High School in Mississippi, we have seen a rapid acceleration of major acts of planned school weapons incidents. For every incident that we have seen reported in the media during the past several years, there have also been a number of successfully thwarted planned major acts of weapons violence. These have been stopped by communities where the threat was recognized and acted upon by those who were prepared because they understood that such incidents can take place in any school. If we look at the trends, it is clear that attempts to commit such horrible acts will be with us for quite some time. What is unclear is how many attempts will be successful because some communities still have not recognized and adequately addressed the danger that exists.

Just when it seems that there could not possibly be anyone who has not understood the message that our troubled youth have sent us time and time again, we find there are indeed those who still believe that their community or their school is somehow exempt. If we look at many of the schools that have experienced some of our most tragic events, we find that they are not just good schools, but excellent schools. They are staffed by competent educators, and attended primarily by good kids.

At least two of the mass school shootings in the past three years have taken place in schools where more than 80 percent of graduates move on to attend college. We have had multiple shooting incidents and hostage situations at private religious schools, at suburban schools, and at schools in rural areas. Incidents have occurred in large, medium and very small schools. Incidents have taken place in communities with high, moderate and low violent crime rates. We have had incidents in all regions of the country and in most, if not all, states. In short, if youth are assembled in an educational facility, they must be provided with a level of protection that is up to the challenge of our violent society. I speak here of major incidents of planned weapons violence; if we add the much more common single-victim shootings and edged weapons assaults, the scope of the problem is magnified considerably.

Just how much handwriting must be on the wall before we all can read it? I was prompted to write this column after I learned of a situation where a student made clear statements involving weapons violence at school. The student had exhibited numerous violent indicators and destructive behaviors, demonstrating that he was a serious risk. He had even made reference to a specific date for venting his anger. The lead school administrator’s response,“Things like that couldn’t happen at this school,” is disturbing. A police investigator assigned to the case had not had time to follow up on the investigation, even though the first date mentioned by the student was the next regular school day. Such conduct by those who are charged with protecting our youth is inexcusable. Fortunately, in this case a state law enforcement agency agreed to intervene.

According to the National School Safety Center, more than 250 violent school deaths have occurred in public and private schools in our nation since 1992. According to the United States Department of Education, it is estimated that, in this country, more than 100,000 students carry a gun to school each day, yet only about 4,000 students are reported as expelled for gun possession each year. Two students were recently caught with guns on school property in a mid western state. The students were given five days’ suspension from school and were not prosecuted. Is it logical to treat a student gun violation as we would smoking on campus when we have an estimated 18 million student gun violations in our public and private schools each year?

Schools typically provide a safer environment than most other places frequented by our youth. Some statistical data even tell us that school crime has decreased over the past decade. While it is extremely difficult to gauge accurately overall national school crime rates due to pervasive underreporting of school crime, we believe that the violent school death rate is down. But when we have 20 to 40 violent school deaths each year in our nation, how much crime and violence are“acceptable”?

When lives are lost due to acts of violence in schools around the nation, we constantly hear the words “We never thought it could happen here”. When we look more closely, we often can see a lack of adequate prevention, planning and response measures in place in schools where those in charge really did not believe that “it” could happen. How many tragedies will it take to arouse those who are still dangerously unaware? How many more lives must we lose before safety is a serious consideration in every school in our great nation?

Michael Dorn is a school safety specialist with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is also the former Chief of Police for the Bibb County (Ga.) Public School System, which is widely used as an international model for school safety.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.