Hours after the deadliest school shooting in Texas history, lawmakers and educators around the nation launched into another round of a tragically familiar debate about how to make “never again” a reality.
An 18-year-old student who was a “reported dropout” wrecked his car near Robb Elementary School in the largely Latino community of Uvalde, Texas, Tuesday, forced his way past on-site law enforcement and shot and killed 19 students and two adults in adjoining 4th-grade classrooms, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
State leaders called the attack “incomprehensible,” but educators and school safety experts around the country said that the killings—and the resulting political arguments—follow a pattern established over a decade of high-profile mass school shootings that started in 2012 in Newtown, Conn.
“Unfortunately, I think we’ve seen the tone of the discussions,” said Amy Klinger, co-founder of the Educator’s School Safety Network, an organization that seeks to bring teachers and school administrators into school safety conversations.
“People latch onto one issue,” she said. “They retreat to their corners and scream at each other.”
Public leaders quickly restarted familiar arguments Tuesday. President Joe Biden—a Democrat who led an unsuccessful push for new gun restrictions as vice president after the Sandy Hook Elementary attack—argued for “common sense gun safety” measures, like universal background checks and bans on certain powerful rifles.
“Why are we willing to live with this carnage?,” he said in a White House address, without detailing a specific proposal. “Why do we keep letting this happen?”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, started pushing to “harden schools” through the presence of armed adults and physical security, efforts he had already championed in 2019, when the state passed a massive school safety bill following the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 people dead.
“After any incident like this, of course, you reflect on lessons learned to ensure that we can prevent this kind of situation in schools going forward,” Abbott said at a Wednesday press conference, suggesting potential action in the state’s next legislative session, which is scheduled to start in January 2023.
Meanwhile, experts who study school safety caution that another round of task forces and best-practice reports won’t make a difference if the resulting ideas sit on a shelf unheeded.
Questions swirl: What, if anything, can lawmakers do to stop the pattern of gun violence in schools? Are existing policies being adequately enforced? Will knee-jerk policy reactions add to districts’ burdens without helping the situation?
School shootings drive policy debates
Mass school shootings are statistically rare events that have increased in frequency alongside mass shootings in all settings, federal data show.
But, while schools are relatively safe places for children, the emotional impact of high-profile events drives policy debates, which often focus on the worst-case scenarios and ignore more-routine concerns, like a lack of school nurses and outdated buildings, school safety experts say.
Every headline-making attack in the last 10 years has sparked a new round of commissions, task forces, and special reports full of proposed solutions, said Matthew Mayer, a professor of educational psychology at Rutgers University who studies school violence prevention.
After the 2012 Newtown shootings, in which 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Obama administration championed new grant programs designed to broaden the definition of safe schools and increase prevention efforts.
After the 2018 shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, the Trump administration convened a federal school safety commission, which issued an 180-page report of mostly familiar recommendations, like the use of positive behavioral supports and social-emotional learning. Controversially, the commission also recommended that schools consider training and arming some staff, an idea that was panned by many educators and members of law enforcement as unrealistic and unsafe.
Mayer has contributed to several calls to action. After Newtown, he joined an interdisciplinary coalition of researchers and education organizations to urge a broad range of steps to reduce school and community violence, including “increased efforts to limit inappropriate access to guns and especially, assault type weapons.” After the Parkland shooting, many of those same researchers released similar recommendations.
“They know what they need to do but they are not going to do it,” said Mayer, who called for peaceful protests in support of new gun laws. “They are going to make plenty of speeches and vague promises, but we have 20 years of history showing that nothing has happened.”
A focus on prevention
Educational groups including AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and national teachers’ unions have pushed for changes to gun laws, like bans on high-capacity magazines, alongside efforts to create safe and supportive school climates.
But Texas lawmakers, many of whom are scheduled to speak at a National Rifle Association meeting in Houston this week, said talk of gun laws amounted to “politicizing” the tragedy.
The 18-year-old Uvalde gunman legally purchased his weapons, had no known criminal record and no record of diagnosed mental health conditions, Abbott said. And, while experts say most attackers “leak” their intentions to friends and family beforehand, the only warning signs police had identified were three online posts the suspect made 30 minutes before the attack, he said.
Abbott spoke after his gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, interrupted the press conference by yelling about the need for new gun laws.
“We don’t need to focus on ourselves and our agendas, we need to focus on the healing and hope that we are providing to those who suffered unconscionable damage to their lives,” Abbott said.
Following the Santa Fe attack, Texas lawmakers passed a raft of legislation that provided grants for threat assessment, required schools to create comprehensive school safety plans subject to an audit by state officials, and lifted caps on the state’s school marshal program, which allows trained school staff to carry guns on campus.
After the Robb Elementary shooting, politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called for more armed adults and law enforcement in schools. Their push came even as officials revealed the gunman had evaded law enforcement, who confronted him before he began shooting and took up to an hour to stop him.
Taking stock of existing laws
In the rush to take action, policymakers shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel with new mandates that aren’t practical for schools or backed by evidence, said Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International who consults on school safety.
After previous shootings, some lawmakers have backed requirements for drills that teach students how to “run, hide, and fight,” despite concerns that such measures could cause confusion in the event of a crisis, he said.
“The demand is fix this right now when we know it’s not always that simple,” he said.
Similarly, schools can’t buy their way into safety with new gear and infrastructure, Klinger said. Rather, it takes careful work with families and communities to keep students safe.
Flo Rice, a substitute teacher who was severely injured in the Santa Fe shooting and advocated for resulting school safety laws, said Texas should do more to enforce the policies it already has in place.
After hearing a fire alarm, Rice was evacuating students from the gym in 2018 when a 17-year-old student shot her in both legs, altering her life forever.
As Rice walked with a cane and attended physical therapy appointments, she also met with lawmakers to push for more comprehensive school safety plans, the ability to communicate within a school building during a crisis, and threat assessment practices to help identify students who may harm themselves or others.
But, as another shooting dominates headlines in her state, Rice is concerned that actions after the 2018 attack amounted to false promises, she told Education Week.
An audit of districts’ compliance with the state’s school safety laws by the Texas School Safety Center, a state entity that reviews plans every three years, found that many fall short of full compliance. Of 1,022 districts reviewed by the agency, “only 200 had a viable active shooter policy” required by the law, known as Senate Bill 11, according to a 2021 report.
“Had this law been enforced, lives might have been saved,” Rice said in an email to Education Week. “Nothing has changed since 5/18/2018 to protect our children.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2022 edition of Education Week as A Familiar Fight About How to Make Schools Safe