School Climate & Safety

Shootings Reignite Focus on ‘Red Flag’ Laws, Schools’ Role in Violence Prevention

By Evie Blad — August 05, 2019 8 min read
Mourners bow their heads in prayer as they gather for a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, in Dayton, Ohio. Multiple people in Ohio were killed in the second mass shooting in the U.S. in less than 24 hours.
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Responding to two large mass shootings over the weekend, President Donald Trump on Monday resurrected an idea he first pushed after a 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.—the enactment of state-level “red flag” laws that allow authorities to restrict people’s access to weapons if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

A wave of states passed such laws, more formally known as extreme risk protection orders, after last year’s shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and 15 states now have them. Among the first was Florida, which included a red flag law in a broad school safety bill it passed within a month of the attack, responding to reports that the gunman, a former student, had a known history of threatening behavior and interactions with law enforcement.

Trump’s remarks Monday followed a devastating weekend of violence. Police said a 21-year-old gunman who appeared to be motivated by hate toward Latino immigrants killed at least 22 people and injured more than two dozen others at a crowded Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas, Saturday as families shopped for school supplies.

Less than a day later, a 24-year-old man opened fire in a Dayton, Ohio, entertainment district, killing nine people, including his own sister, in less than a minute before police shot and killed him. Later that day, his classmates told reporters he’d been disciplined for making threats in high school.

The aftermath plunged the nation back into conversations educators haven’t stopped having since school shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas, dominated 2018 headlines—conversations about gun laws, the roots of violence, and the role of schools in prevention.

“In the two decades since Columbine, our nation has watched with rising horror and dread as one mass shooting has followed another—over and over again, decade after decade,” Trump said Monday. “We cannot allow ourselves to feel powerless. We can and will stop this evil contagion.”

In advocating for red flag laws, Trump identified one of his few areas of agreement with post-Parkland student gun violence activists and groups, like March for Our Lives, which include those laws in their policy platform along with expanded background checks, bans on high-capacity magazines, waiting periods for gun purchases, and bans on the sales of assault weapons.

But those same students, Democratic lawmakers, and some national policy organizations criticized the president for pointing a finger at mental illness and video games when it was still unclear if they were at issue in the weekend shootings. They said Trump needed to do more to disavow divisive and racist rhetoric. And they urged Trump to push the Senate to take up background check bills that have already been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Who wants to go camping outside @senatemajldr s office?” March for Our Lives founder David Hogg tweeted of Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We’ll Sleep there, get arrested. Come back, get arrested again.”

Previous Recommendations

A federal school safety commission, assembled by Trump last year and chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, discussed state-level extreme risk protection orders, but it stopped short of a full-throated recommendation, and it did not recommend any changes in federal gun laws.

“The available evidence suggests that the older risk warrant laws may have a positive impact on suicide prevention,” the task force said in its December 2018 report, which also encouraged arming teachers. “We do not know whether they impact gun violence more generally, and it appears no studies have yet evaluated the more recent ERPO laws in other states.”

Extreme risk protection orders allow law enforcement officers and, in some cases, family members to petition a court to temporarily restrict an individual’s access to and ability to purchase firearms, citing concerns like threatening behavior or a violation of a restraining order. A judge can later extend those restrictions pending a hearing, which usually takes place a few weeks after the initial temporary order.

The laws give courts the ability to act quickly to respond to issues that might not show up on a criminal background check required for most gun purchases. Neither Texas nor Ohio has such laws, despite the efforts of gun violence prevention groups in both states. But it’s unclear if they would have done anything to prevent the weekend’s attacks, which both involved semi-automatic weapons and magazines capable of holding dozens of bullets that appeared to be legally purchased by the shooters.

Suspects’ Backgrounds

The El Paso suspect did not have a criminal history, police said, and the strongest warning sign police initially identified was a racist screed about immigrants he appeared to have posted on an internet message board just moments before he entered the store with his weapon.

In Dayton, police said there was nothing in that suspect’s background that would have prevented him from buying the rifle he modified and used in the shooting. High school classmates of the Dayton suspect told the Associated Press he had been suspended from the suburban Bellbrook High School for compiling a “hit list” of those he wanted to kill and a “rape list” of girls he wanted to sexually assault. The school district would not respond to such reports, only confirming he had been a student there. An unnamed woman told the AP that police had called her in high school to warn her she was on one of those lists.

“The officer said he wouldn’t be at school for a while,” she said. “But after some time passed he was back, walking the halls. They didn’t give us any warning that he was returning to school.”

A 2012 Dayton Daily News story reported that roughly a third of 900 Bellbrook students skipped school one day out of fear of a planned attack after the list was found.

Police officials with jurisdiction over the school said they had no record of contact with the shooting suspect, who does not have an adult criminal record. Any juvenile record would be sealed under state law.

Since the Parkland attack, more schools have been forming threat assessment teams—interdepartmental teams of educators and student support staff trained to respond to concerns about behavior, like the Dayton suspect’s reported lists, and to find ways to support students who may need help. Support for such efforts was included in the STOP School Violence Act signed into law by Trump last year.

Prevention experts say such efforts, combined with red flag laws, could give schools a new path to intervene in urgent and potentially dangerous situations. In New York, lawmakers even passed the only red flag law in the country that identifies designated school employees as reporters.

But threat assessment processes don’t catch everything. The Parkland gunman, for example, went through a threat assessment process at school, but he wasn’t involuntarily admitted for mental-health treatment after an off-site clinic determined he hadn’t posed an immediate or specific threat.

More broadly, schools are also restricted in what information they can share with law enforcement under federal student privacy laws.

Political Hurdles

Some conservative groups, and lobbyists for the National Rifle Association, have opposed red flag laws out of concerns that guns could be too easily removed and that such policies could run afoul of suspects’ due process rights.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, seemed to acknowledge that political reality Monday after the president’s remarks. His predecessor, former Gov. John Kasich, failed to win passage of a red flag law following the Parkland shooting.

DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney told the Toledo Blade Monday that the governor had met with parties, including gun-rights advocates, to determine next steps, which he plans to unveil Tuesday.

“Whether you call it red flag or not, the governor is looking to see if something can be done when looking at something in someone’s mental health or criminal justice backgrounds where the courts can take action regarding firearms,” Tierney told the Blade.

Though Republican governors are often reluctant to adopt new gun laws, DeWine faces pressure to act. As he appeared at a Sunday night vigil for the Dayton shooting victims, the crowd drowned out his voice with chants of, “Do something!”

At the federal level, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., announced Monday a plan to create a federal grant program to help states that adopt red flag protection orders, the AP reported. The grants would enlist mental health professionals to help determine which cases need to be acted on, Graham said, adding that while the program allows for quick action, it requires judicial review. A similar bill did not come up for a vote in the Senate last year.

School safety researchers, who’ve urged prioritizing prevention over “school hardening” and heavy physical security measures since the Parkland shooting, said red flag laws should be considered just one part of broader efforts.

A coalition of such researchers signed onto a 2018 document calling for red flag laws, improved school climate, a range of tougher federal gun laws, adequate student support staffing in schools, and federal funding of research into the causes of gun violence and mass shootings.

Those policy changes, coupled with school-based prevention efforts that encourage students to share reports of their peers’ concerning behavior, may lead to a generational change, said Ron Astor, a professor of social work and education at the University of California, Los Angeles who signed onto those recommendations. Students who see violence prevention as a collective responsibility may grow into adults who are more sensitive to the needs and concerns of their peers, he said.

But schools also need to think more broadly about prevention work at the earliest end of the spectrum, taking broad systemic steps to tackle issues with students like racism, hatred, and violence.

“The purpose of a school becomes to have a better society,” Astor said. “I think the schools have to re-own that whole piece.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as Shootings Reignite Focus on ‘Red Flag’ Laws

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