The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has led to a national conversation about guns, with many arguing that access to these weapons is the problem and others claiming that arming teachers—or in the case of the NRA, putting armed policeman in schools—is the solution. Lawmakers in several states are reportedly drafting bills that would allow teachers to carry guns in the classroom. We are very troubled by these proposals, not just as the parents of school-aged children; one of us grew up in Newtown and is an education policy analyst, and the other studies youth violence prevention. And there is no evidence to support having civilians carry guns in schools and much that suggests such a move is more likely to lead to harm.
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It’s important to keep in mind that while mass shootings are extremely rare, violence impacts the lives of young people every day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that each day, an average of 13 people between the ages of 10 and 24 are victims of homicide in the U.S., making homicide the third leading cause of death among youth and young adults; it is the leading cause of death among African American youth. Yet very little of this violence occurs on school grounds. Children spend more than a third of their waking hours on campus, but less than 2% of youth homicides occur at school.
One of the reasons why there are so few homicides at school is because these places are largely successful at keeping guns off the premises. Adult supervision and, in very high-risk schools, metal detectors have proven to be effective deterrents. While there are no specific data regarding having armed adults in schools, an analysis of U.S. mortality data found that people with guns in the home are at greater risk than those without guns in the home of dying from a homicide there. There is no reason to think schools would be any different: the more guns there are, the more opportunities there are to use them.
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If arming teachers isn’t the answer, what can schools do to minimize the risk of violence? Although much work remains to be done, policy experts have begun to gather rigorous evidence that suggests the most effective strategies include improving access to mental health services, reducing access to lethal weapons and developing “early warning” systems that identify young people at risk of committing violent acts.
Within and outside of schools, we need better mental health support as well as threat assessments so that people have somewhere to turn for help when they recognize someone is in trouble and requires help. “Gatekeeper” programs, such as those used in suicide prevention may be valuable models. These programs, including one called Sources of Strength, involve training adults and peers to recognize warning signs. Gatekeepers then provide a link between young people and mental health professionals. There is limited evidence for most gatekeeper approaches, but some have revealed promising data.
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But better mental health support is only one piece of the puzzle. To address the underlying causes of violence, researchers have identified a number of effective strategies such as school-based prevention programs that help all students develop their conflict-resolution skills, emotional awareness and self-control; family-based programs designed to improve parenting and solve problems in nonviolent ways, and mentoring programs that pair a young person with an adult who can serve as a positive role model and help guide the young person’s behavior.
Schools are safer when they have a culture that includes supportive teacher-student relationships and clear norms and expectations that violence is not tolerated. Students need to feel that they belong at school and that others care for them. The students most at risk of committing violence are the ones who are most alienated from school and their community. Connecting them to school and services is essential. And to do this effectively, parents and families need to be included.
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While we may never completely eliminate violence in schools, research over the past 20 years has shown that we can significantly reduce the risk of violence. And the more effective we are at addressing the underlying causes and at developing effective early-warning and prevention systems, the less need there will be for policies aimed at minimizing the damage from extreme violence. Sandy Hook broke our hearts. But we need to move forward thoughtfully and use evidence-based findings, rather than heated rhetoric, to support our policy decisions.