Is There Any Way For Schools To Prevent Shootings? : NPR Ed There is no one profile of a school shooter, but whole-school approaches to mental health and discipline have the potential to reduce violence.

Is There Any Way For Schools To Prevent Shootings?

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After yesterday's school shooting in Parkland, Fla., many people are asking whether anyone could have prevented the attack. Most American schools have taken steps to prepare for this kind of threat since the Columbine massacre in 1999, and they've done it without federal oversight or much in the way of dedicated resources.

Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team joins us now to talk about how schools around the country are responding to threats of a mass shooter. Hi, Anya.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with warning signs that teachers and school administrators might look for before an incident like this.

KAMENETZ: So we should caution that there's no one profile of a school shooter. But the National School Safety Center, which is a nonprofit, has compiled a list of a pattern of behaviors that we can see from published reports such as exhibiting a violent temper, someone who's brought a weapon to school, being a bully or perhaps a domestically violent or abusive partner, someone who's preoccupied with weapons, has been expelled from school, cruelty to animals and, finally, preferring violent themes in their media. And of course from what we know about the perpetrator in Florida, he does satisfy almost every one of these indicators. And of course these indicators do these days often show up on social media, as they did here.

SHAPIRO: But there must be a lot of violent, alienated, angry, depressed bullies who don't turn out to be mass murderers, right?

KAMENETZ: Oh, my gosh, absolutely. People suffering from mental health issues are not more likely to be violent. There's not a 1 to 1 correlation here. In fact, people suffering from mental health issues are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes rather than perpetrators. That said, these are red flags that from a public health standpoint people in a school community can and should be responding to in terms of their responsibility toward making sure that people get help and intervention.

SHAPIRO: And educators that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did respond to the warning signs in this student. Tell us what they did.

KAMENETZ: Well, that is the really frustrating part because it seems in this case that the school did almost everything right by the book. They took these indicators seriously. They apparently expelled him. There are reports that there were warnings about this student. That said, of course there is a dearth of resources for dealing with students who have mental health issues on campus. We reported earlier this year that 1 in 5 students has a mental health problem in K-12. And yet there is very few school counselors and school psychologists. On average there is about one school counselor for every 500 students and just one school psychologist for every 1,400 students nationwide.

SHAPIRO: So as you said, the frustrating part is the school saw the warning signs. They did what they were told to do, and yet this shooting happened. So where's the disconnect?

KAMENETZ: Well, I mean, you know, schools can only do so much, right? And we have a mental health system. It's more of a patchwork than it is a system, in fact. And the irony is that, you know, expelling a student from school can sometimes cut them off from the ability to access resources.

SHAPIRO: When a school does expel a problematic student, is there any way to keep track of that student and make sure they're not spiraling into something that could lead to violence?

KAMENETZ: In most cities, no. Unfortunately expulsion is a step along a path for many students that leads to other involvement in crime, perhaps unemployment and mental health issues. And that's exactly why some school safety experts and public health experts are focusing on the idea of reducing what's called exclusionary discipline. Of course that leaves schools with the really hard question of how to deal with students who may present a threat to others.

SHAPIRO: As we said, there has not been federal policy, federal funding. Do you expect that there could be a more national approach to these issues in schools?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, it's hard to say that there's any silver lining in an incident like this. But, you know, the new federal education law that is on the books does require states to at least report data that's related to school climate and safety. And given that information, what researchers I've talked to say is that we could then target whole school interventions. And those can really work - things like restorative justice, social and emotional curricula, wraparound mental health services and networks of referrals. And those kinds of approaches, you know - when taken as a whole, they're a public health approach to this kind of risk. And it can in fact reduce violence in multiple ways.

SHAPIRO: Anya, thanks a lot.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: That's Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team.


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