School shootings escalate despite security tightening

Despite increased security put in place after the rampage at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, there's been no real reduction in the number of U.S. school shootings.

Gunfire has echoed through school hallways, killing students or their teachers in incidents in Pennsylvania and New Mexico, Colorado and Tennessee. In this academic year alone there have been at least 11 school shootings. In addition, other cases of gun violence, in school parking lots and elsewhere on campus, when classes were not in session, have been reported.

Since the mid- to late-1990s, the rate of school shootings is statistically unchanged, yet still remains troubling according to experts. In the past 20 years, there have been about 500 school-associated violent deaths, as the executive director of the National School Safety Center, Ronald Stephens, put it. However, a string of recent shootings at colleges and universities are not included in the numbers.

As the Associated Press reports, finding factors to blame is the easy part but stopping the violence remains the challenge.

"I think that's one of the major problems. There are no easy answers," Stephens said. "A line I often use is do everything you can, knowing you can't do everything."

Stephens said that schools generally are much safer than they were five to fifteen years ago. Perspective is important when a single death is one too many as Stephens noted. In 2012, there were 500 homicides in Chicago, about the same number in the nation's 132,000-plus K-12 schools over two decades.

"I believe schools are much safer than they used to be but clearly they still have a good ways to go," Stephens said.

According to the office of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the recent budget deal in Congress provides $140 million to support safe school environments, and is a $29 million increase. As the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten estimates, since the Newtown shootings, about 90% of districts have tightened security.

In addition, according to the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, Mo Canady, attention also has focused on hiring school resource officers, sworn law enforcement officers who are trained to work in a school environment. There are about 10,000 of them in the U.S as estimated by his organization. Police nationwide have adopted "active shooter" policies where officers are trained to confront a shooter immediately since the shootings at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999, in which two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher and wounded 26 others before killing themselves.

"The goal is to stop it, from the law enforcement side, stop it as quickly as you can because we know with an active shooter if you don't stop it, more lives will be lost," Canady said.

However, a lot is risked by confronting a shooter. By ensuring schools have resources for counselors, social workers and after-care programs, more emphasis needs to be placed on improving school cultures as Weingarten believes. During budget cuts of recent years many of these kinds of programs were scaled back. A healthy school culture can prevent such incidents and even lead students to tell adults about classmates who display warning signs that they could commit such violence according to experts. Additionally, strong mental health support systems in schools are important as Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters on Thursday.

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