It’s the same conversation, with the same rhetoric and talking points — seemingly destined for the same dead ends. That’s what deflates any sense of optimism, like an old birthday balloon.
It’s been two weeks since a gunman who legally purchased two assault rifles within days of his turning 18 shot and killed 19 school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. While it might be soothing to hold out hope that this time will be different — that this set of mangled small bodies and empty green tennis shoes will finally compel federal lawmakers to pass meaningful gun control laws — the stage is already setting in familiar fashion. Deflections are flying, blame is being shifted and heels are digging in.
There are plenty of reasons for frustration, the most obvious being, well, the most obvious: We already know the root of the United States’ sickness is the country’s access to guns. With more guns than people, the U.S. is by far the most heavily armed society in the world, as Reuters noted in an explainer piece appropriately titled, “Why tighter U.S. firearms laws are unlikely.” Our most-pressing failing is right there in front of us, for the whole world to see, and yet we find a way to defend and rationalize the carnage it creates while doing very little to stop the killing.
If we move beyond that sad truth, there are plenty of other reasons to be critical of our collective response to mass shootings in school.
Beyond our inability to pass meaningful gun control legislation on a national level, the reality is that federal lawmakers keep trotting out the same misguided half measures in our schools and proposing new variations of the same failed policies to curb the violence — and none of it is working. In too many states, we remain locked in a debate over arming teachers, or installing different doors, or putting more cops in classrooms, even as the evidence collected over the last two decades shows just how pointless, ineffective and harmful those approaches can be.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Eric Madfis, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington Tacoma who has published multiple books on the subject.
Two years ago, Madfis, a nationally recognized expert in the field of school violence prevention, released “How to Stop School Rampage Killing: Lessons from Averted Mass Shootings and Bombings.” In 2014, he published “The Risk of School Rampage: Assessing and Preventing Threats of School Violence.” Both books focus on what we’ve learned from school shootings in the United States, and most importantly the would-be attacks that have been successfully prevented.
Late last week, Madfis — who also has spoken to Congress and recently had his work featured by John Oliver on HBO’s Last Week Tonight — spent a morning discussing the conversation we should be having about safety in our schools.
“A lot of the stuff we propose in the wake of mass shootings don’t help and might even make it worse. So for example, if you have a more securitized school environment, if you have zero tolerance (discipline) policies, if you have more harsh discipline — all of that doesn’t prevent school shootings, and, in fact, makes the school climate worse. It makes kids less likely to report (potential threats), and it can actually lead to more school shootings,” Madfis said, citing evidence showing that the presence of school resource officers (or SROs) are not an effective deterrent to school shootings, and that safety measures like armed teachers and staff, security cameras and even metal detectors can have the unintended consequence of making them more deadly.
“It’s sort of a feedback loop in that way, so it’s important instead to focus on things that actually work,” Madfis continued.
“If your plan is not to get away with this — and you’re going to either kill yourself or get arrested at the end, which is true the majority of times in school shootings — you’re not so concerned with metal detectors or getting in trouble.”
So what does work?
Beyond taking steps to limit the nearly unfettered access to firearms — which, let’s be clear, Madfis describes as a no-brainer — he zeroed in on two main approaches: accurate threat assessment and creating “positive school environments,” where “kids trust the adults in the building” and feel like the rules and discipline are fair.
According to Madfis, threat assessment is markedly different from our more traditional approach of trying to predict what kind of person or student might become a school shooter. You know the cliches and stereotypes — black trench coat, violent video games, dark music. All of them are largely inaccurate and ultimately unhelpful, Madfis said.
Instead, Madfis championed an approach that provides teachers, administrators and law enforcement with the training and guidance to suss out legitimate threats in advance and then respond accordingly. Borrowed in part from the Secret Service, employing accurate threat assessment is one of the proactive and effective steps that schools and law enforcement agencies can take if they’re serious about preventing tragedies, Madfis said.
According to Madfis, threat assessment programs are one thing that have given teachers and law enforcement officers he’s interviewed “the most confidence in terms of how they assess whether or not the threat was going to be real or not.”
In 2019, Washington state lawmakers included school-based threat assessment programs in a host of mandates described as “nonfirearm measures to increase school safety and student well being,” influenced in part by testimony Madfis provided.
“The way this approach looks at things is that you try to assess the substance of the threat itself. So if a threat has been made, you can determine how detailed it was, and how direct it was,” Madfis explained.
“Was the threat to a specific person, at a specific time in a specific place? Did you take actions to carry out the plan? Did you actually have an arsenal of weapons? Did you look this stuff up on the internet?” he continued.
“The substance of the threat is important to assess, to know whether it’s a transient threat or a serious, substantive threat, with a level of severity.”
Positive school environments
There’s a catch, though, and it relates to Madfis’ second key recommendations for schools looking to prevent mass shootings: creating environments where students feel comfortable coming forward and reporting potential threats.
While the toll of recent school shootings like the one in Uvalde might make it difficult to understand how students would keep quiet, they too often do, Madfis said, and the reason is simple: They don’t trust school officials.
Often, he explained, that’s because existing discipline procedures — and particularly zero tolerance policies, which employ mandatory penalties for certain offenses — feel unfair and disproportionately enforced.
Zero tolerance policies are just one of many responses to school violence that proliferated in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, Madfis noted, and they fly in the face of everything he’s learned studying school tragedies that were successfully prevented in the years that followed.
“In the vast majority of school shootings … the offender sort of tells lots of people about their plans. And in the vast majority of cases, what prevents these things from happening is when kids are exposed to that sort of information and then come forward to adults,” Madfis said. “There is still a prevalent code of silence in schools. Even in the cases where maybe one student came forward, there were often 10 other students who knew about it who didn’t come forward.”
“So how do you kind of encourage kids to come forward? You can do a number of things … but really it’s about having a positive school environment where kids trust the adults in the building, feel like the rules are fair and feel like they’re being treated fairly,” Madfis said.
Gun control debate
At the end of the day, Madfis is just like many of us.
He’s frustrated, he’s disgusted by the United States’ lack of urgency and resolve to respond to mass shootings, and he can’t help but think of his own children when he reads stories about what happened in Uvalde and too many other schools across the country, he said.
In a particularly revealing moment, Madfis acknowledged his own academic work has been influenced by the feelings of pessimism and hopelessness stirred by watching the partisan national gun debate rage on without producing meaningful progress, even as the death toll rises.
If the United States isn’t going to rise to the occasion — and history suggests the country won’t, this time or next — the very least we can do is adopt policies that actually stand a chance of minimizing the damage done by guns, he said.
You know, for the children.
“I’m not particularly hopeful about much in this country,” Madfis said.
“But I wish we would take research into account, and what we know works.”