Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Why Security Measures Won’t Stop School Shootings

By Bryan Warnick, Benjamin A. Johnson & Sam Rocha — February 14, 2018 5 min read
Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Fla., earlier this week, law enforcement officers block the entrance to the school.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Following the deadly shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that killed at least 17 students, and like the many that have come before it, there have been calls for more stringent security measures at schools.

For instance, after the Jan. 23 case in which a 15-year-old student allegedly shot and killed two students and wounded 16 others at a small-town high school in Kentucky, some Kentucky lawmakers called for armed teachers and staff.

If anything, the response of the Kentucky lawmakers represents what has been called the “target-hardening” approach to school shootings. This approach attempts to fortify schools against gun violence through increased security measures. These measures may include metal detectors, lock-down policies, “run, hide, fight” training and surveillance cameras.

While some of these measures seem sensible, overall there is little empirical evidence that such security measures decrease the likelihood of school shootings. Surveillance cameras were powerless to stop the carnage in Columbine and school lock-down policies did not save the children at Sandy Hook.

As researchers who have collaboratively written about school shootings, we believe what is missing from the discussion is the idea of an educational response. Current policy responses do not address the fundamental question of why so many mass shootings take place in schools. To answer this question, we need to get to the heart of how students experience school and the meaning that schools have in American life.

An educational response is important because the “target hardening” approach might actually make things worse by changing students’ experience of schools in ways that suggest violence rather than prevent it.

How Security Measures Can Backfire

Filling schools with metal detectors, surveillance cameras, police officers, and gun-wielding teachers tells students that schools are scary, dangerous, and violent places—places where violence is expected to occur.

The “target hardening” approach also has the potential to change how teachers, students, and administrators see one another. How teachers understand the children and youth they teach has important educational consequences. Are students budding citizens or future workers? Are they plants to nourish or clay to mold?

One of the most common recommendations for schools, for example, is that they should be engaged in threat assessment. Checklists are sometimes suggested to school personnel to determine when students should be considered as having the potential for harm. While such practices have their place, as a society we should be aware that these practices change how teachers think of students: not as budding learners, but potential shooters; not with the potential to grow and flourish, but with the potential to enact lethal harm.

Of course, society can think of students in different ways at different times. But the more teachers think of students as threats to be assessed, the less educators will think of students as individuals to nourish and cultivate.

As researchers, we have read the accounts of dozens of different school shootings, and we think educators, parents, and others should begin to raise the following questions about schools.

Questions of Status

To what extent does the school—through things like athletics, homecoming royalties, or dances and so forth—encourage what some political scientists have called the “status tournament of adolescence” that lurks behind the stories of many school shootings?

As one reads about such shootings, one often senses a feeling of social anxiety and betrayal on the part of perpetrator. Americans hold high expectations for schools as places of friendship and romance, yet too often students find alienation, humiliation, and isolation. The frustration at these thwarted expectations at least sometimes seems to turn toward the school itself.

Force and Control Issues

To what extent does the force and coercion employed by many schools contribute to a “might makes right” mentality and associated violence?

It is true that bullying is often a part of some of the stories of school shooters. Students who are bullied or who are bullies themselves will quite naturally think of schools as places appropriate for violence. There is also sometimes a rage, however, against the day-to-day imposition of school discipline and punishment. Since schools are experienced as places of force and control, for some students, they also come to be seen as appropriate places for violence.

Identity and Expression

In research on American high schools, one finds the idea that American schools are intertwined with notions of “expressive individualism”—the idea that human beings should find out and be true to who they really are on the inside. Might this also contribute to school shootings?

Suburban high schools, in particular, are seen by the middle class as places to accomplish expressive projects. Sociologist Robert Bulman points out, for example, how Hollywood films set in suburban settings focus on student journeys of self-discovery, while urban school films focus on heroic teachers and academic achievement. In the same vein, many suburban school shooters see what they are doing as acts of self-expression.

Reading stories of school shootings, one often finds moments in which the shooters claim that something inside, whether hatred or frustration, needed to find expression. An example of this is the manifesto left by Luke Woodham, who shot two students in 1997. “I am not spoiled or lazy,” he wrote, “for murder is not weak or slow-witted, murder is gutsy and daring.” The school became the place where Woodham thought he could express the gutsy and daring person he found on the inside.

What to Do

Of course, it will be difficult to definitively answer the questions we have posed above. And, even if we are able to find answers, it is not clear what the proper educational response should be.

For example, self-expression might be a valuable task for schools, even if it is found to contribute in some way to school shootings. Our suggestion is simply that, instead of trying to find solutions to school shootings in the dubious arms of security technologies, or even solely through more promising public policy, society should ask deeper questions about the nature of education and schooling in American society.

It is time to think about school shootings not as a problem of security, but also as a problem of education.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety 'Devious Lick' TikTok Trend Creates Chaos in Schools Nationwide
Shattered mirrors, missing soap dispensers, and broken toilets in school bathrooms have been linked to the "devious lick" challenge.
Simone Jasper, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
2 min read
At the new Rising Hill Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., gender neutral student bathrooms have a common sink area for washing and individual, locking, toilet stalls that can be used by boys or girls. Principal Kate Place gave a tour of the facilities on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. The school is in the North Kansas City school district.
A gender neutral student bathroom.
Keith Myers/The Kansas City Star via AP
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection
New research finds that shooters in K-12 schools are more often "failed joiners" than loners.
5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
Sheriff deputies were on the scene of a shooting at Madison Local Schools, in Butler County, Ohio, in 2016.
Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP
School Climate & Safety 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term
New longitudinal research shows that longer in- and out-of-school suspensions have severe consequences for students.
5 min read
Image of a student sitting at a desk in a school hallway.
Jupiterimages/Getty
School Climate & Safety Photos The Tense and Joyous Start to the 2021 School Year, in Photos
Students are headed back to school with the threat of the Delta variant looming. How is this playing out across the country? Take a look.