Keeping Schools Safe

The following is an opinion piece by Eric Wood, Ph.D., LPC, associate director of counseling and mental health at Texas Christian University.

The recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – one of the deadliest such attacks in American history – has renewed the debate over how best to keep our schools safe. While gun control and security measures are important, our K-12 schools also would do well to adopt more of the preventative measures that colleges and universities began doing more than a decade ago, after another of our nation’s most devastating campus shootings.

Photo of Eric Wood

Eric Wood, Ph.D., LPC, associate director of Counseling and Mental Health

The April 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech was a wake-up call to colleges and universities. Virtually every university developed some type of response in its aftermath, particularly in regard to prevention. Almost 60 percent of universities increased their mental health services just within the first year after the shooting. Colleges also made significant strides in identifying and responding to students who might be at risk. For example, according to the investigative report to the governor, prior to April 2007 Seung-Hui Cho had seven documented interactions with university health care and/or safety personnel, but that “the lack of information sharing among academic, administrative and public safety entities…contributed to the failure to see the big picture.” However, if we superimposed Cho’s interactions over the current guidelines of many colleges today, there would be more opportunity for intervention. For example, today at Texas Christian University, Cho would have completed empirically validated mental health screenings on at least two occasions, his health file would have been flagged for monthly follow-ups and the counseling center would have known about his evaluation at the hospital.

In the wake of the 2007 shooting, colleges also began to define the problem as “violence on campuses” as compared to “mass shootings.” Yes, guns are the weapon of choice for mass homicides, which have tripled since 2011. But there are more incidents of violence on campuses that do not include guns, such as at the University of Texas in May 2017. In fact, most perpetrators of mass shootings display some type of violence beforehand. Cho was accused of stalking and Nikolas Cruz (Parkland) was accused of threatening classmates. These could be points of interaction if the mindset is on preventing all violence. It is much easier to promote help-seeking behaviors for students who struggle with violent thoughts than to encourage potential mass shooters to seek counseling.

Perhaps the most significant lesson colleges have learned is the difference between reducing risk factors and strengthening protective factors. The investigative report following Virginia Tech did not claim that access to lethal means was the underlying cause for the shootings. Thus, colleges started to view access to lethal means as a risk factor for violence, but open communication as a protective factor against violence.

This is important – if the problem is defined as violence on campus, then neither arming teachers nor gun control is an effective response. Indeed, arming teachers injects more lethal means onto a campus where we don’t want violence.

The best approach to preventing violence at the K-12 level is to strengthen the protective factors on campuses, such as more counselors on campus, developing a communication system regarding students of concern, voluntary mental health screenings for students, promoting help-seeking for those who struggle with violent thoughts and a warning system for the public. K-12 schools can do all of these by adopting the model utilized by universities. Most major universities have a student counseling center, maintain a separate campus police force, collect and report campus crime statistics and are required to issue timely warnings and emergency notifications – it’s time K-12 schools do the same.

As Amy Roeder, associate editor, “Harvard Public Health” magazine, states, it’s better to change the environment than to change individuals. Let’s focus on changing the K-12 environment, not arguing about what to do after a shooter has already arrived.