June is Gun Violence Awareness Month, and this year, it will be observed at memorials and funerals as ripples of grief ravage a country bloated with weapons and battling common-sense education and gun-safety reforms.
My family is among the victims of this epidemic of mass shootings. Last November, my nephew was shot by a classmate in the hallway at Oxford High School in Michigan. He survived, but four other children died that day. Two days after my nephew was shot, a threat scribbled on a wall in a student restroom forced my own son’s middle school—more than 500 miles away—into lockdown. And then, six months later, on the night of the attack in Uvalde, Texas, as the vice president of our local school board, I presided over a moment of silence.
Although predictable and preventable, the tragedy in Uvalde is unlikely to move Congress to act on common-sense gun reform, but there are initiatives that school community leaders and parents of school-age children can take on a hyperlocal level to start curbing the scourge of gun violence right now.
Numerous studies have shown that students participating in social-emotional-learning programs paired with better mental health supports and implemented through a lens of equity, can increase academic performance and improve classroom behavior. Through social-emotional learning, children acquire the skills necessary to manage their emotions, understand their strengths and overcome challenges, and develop a sense of awareness and empathy for others.
Mental health supports can range from school counseling to parent education and, importantly, create a learning environment where students feel safe to explore and develop these skills. Equity and inclusion measures are intended to ensure that all children are able to access and realize their full achievement potential.
In the months since the incident of violence against my nephew, I have witnessed targeted and deliberate campaigns of misinformation across the country intended to interrupt the very programs that could be the most effective way to curb gun violence in America.
Armed with nonsensical talking points from pro-gun, anti-critical-race-theory politicians, misinformed parents and school board candidates allege that schools are using a combination of mental health supports and responsible decisionmaking and social-skills programs to indoctrinate their children with politically progressive viewpoints. This narrative deliberately ignores the gains that these proven social-emotional learning programs provide to all students.
Lessons about resilience, emotional self-regulation, and communication skills will not indoctrinate students into any political views. These programs will, however, give educators the tools they need to intervene and interrupt the radicalization and the pathology of the next generation of mass shooters.
Systemic racism, the K-12 culture wars, and gun violence are inextricably linked. The perpetrators of mass shootings are not only predominantly white, they often exhibit troubling behavior predictive of their future actions. And those actions remain inadequately addressed by an overextended public education system. Both the racist attacker in the Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store massacre and the gunman who injured my nephew made prior threats in school that should have resulted in a more robust response on multiple fronts.
Instead of investing in tools to help school officials prevent and address red flags, discussions and actions post-tragedy inevitably center on arming teachers, surveillance technology, clear (or bulletproof) backpacks, and zero-tolerance behavior policies.
In practice, these measures have not effectively curbed white violence by white perpetrators, but many of them have increased disciplinary proceedings against Black students, perpetuating and exacerbating race-disparate outcomes that equity policies seek to remediate.
Militarizing (or hardening) our schools and pursuing harsh student discipline is inefficient, ineffective, and expensive. Our most effective practices are proactive rather than punitive. Equipping our teachers with proven strategies, rather than firearms, is our best bet for safer schools and more-successful, self-regulated, future-ready students.
Comprehensive K-12 school counseling programs, which help children learn critical-thinking skills, self-discipline, and delayed gratification are key, and the American School Counselors Association has developed standards that any school system can adopt. Well-executed restorative-justice and other school-based practices that center de-escalation of conflict and repair student and community relationships can help address the root causes of school shootings including a lack of stability at home, social isolation, and lack of social-support networks. Programs such as Sandy Hook Promise “Start With Hello” are specifically designed to help children identify signs of social isolation in their peers and teach them how to help others feel included and supported.
I know many people feel frustrated and helpless. But there is so much that can be done.
The Uvalde shooter was described as a lonely teenager with a difficult home life and a history of being bullied in middle school due to a speech impediment. Each of these issues is precisely the focus of social-emotional, mental health, and equity and inclusion programs.
I know many people feel frustrated and helpless. But there is so much that can be done. Encourage your administrators and school boards to stay focused on creating interdisciplinary teams to design and implement a strategic plan for equity and inclusion, such as we did in my district, where social-emotional learning and mental health best practices are a key component.
Attend school board public-comment sessions or initiate write-in campaigns with other parents and teachers to support these efforts and combat the false narrative of fearmongers, including those who perpetrate replacement-theory lies. Educate yourself on your district’s violence-prevention efforts and consider whether your professional training empowers you to contribute to the social-emotional-learning and violence-reduction conversations in your school district.
If you spend your day working in the fields of child welfare, career development, mental health, substance abuse, juvenile justice, housing insecurity, or law enforcement, you can prevent a tragedy in your own backyard. My family survived gun violence. Yours shouldn’t have to. Let’s reclaim the narrative.
In 2018, Education Week journalists began tracking shootings on K-12 school property that resulted in firearm-related injuries or deaths. There is no single right way of calculating numbers like this, and the human toll is impossible to measure. We hope only to provide reliable information to help inform discussions, debates, and paths forward.
Below, you can find big-picture data on school shootings since 2018. (This chart will be updated as new information becomes available.)
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2022 edition of Education Week as We Can Do More to Stop School Shootings