A Solution for America’s School Shooting Crisis

In the wake of yet another horrific school shooting, the public debate re-opens about what we might do to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Some responses are predictable. From one side, we get calls for greater gun regulation – limiting who has access to what kinds of firearms and placing limitations on the second amendment. From the other side, we get calls to give guns to educators, turning our teachers into armed guards. While we get a great deal of hot air and intense debate, neither of these solutions gets traction.

I will avoid critiquing or passing judgment on these two commonly proposed solutions because they are irrelevant. A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it. We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.

So, we re-enter a vicious cycle with each school shooting. First comes the act of violence and television reports of a school under siege. Next comes the heartbreaking images of covered bodies and grieving parents and children. Then, attention shifts to who is to blame, beyond the murderer. What signs did the killer give that they would perpetrate this horrible act? What did law enforcement or the school staff do (or not do) and what was missed?

Next come the calls for someone in power to do something. We look to our elected officials and leaders for answers. But that process always bogs down as entrenched positions take hold. Soon the outrage fades from the news and social media – and we wait for the next tragedy to strike.

And it will.

We need a solution that breaks the vicious cycle and provides us with a real chance at securing our schools from harm. Here are four actionable and interconnected solutions that would improve the safety of our schools that might actually thread the political needle and get something done.

  1. Put a trained, armed, law-enforcement officer in every school in the United States. These positions are called School Resource Officers and they are typically part of the local police force or sheriff’s office. They have been trained as law-enforcement officers and also have specialized training on working with students and families in schools. School Resource Officers would coordinate security within schools and would provide trained and armed protection for our students and staff. Some communities and schools have these roles, but many do not.
  2. Increase support for school mental health supports and interventions. School mental health support staff (including counselors and psychologists) conduct assessments and provide follow-up support when students and families are in crisis. But there aren’t enough of them and these professionals need ongoing training on how to support or get help for students and families. Building leaders and teachers also need added training and support on handling and referring mental health issues in schools. We need less talk and more funding on this issue, which is already at a crisis-level across the country.
  3. Create a federally-funded center on school safety and security. Possibly housed within the Department of Homeland Security, this national think-tank would study school violence and provide up-to-date and evolving best practices and protocols for schools around how to prevent violence and what action steps staff, students, and law enforcement can take in the event it occurs. When there is an airline accident, there is a robust and in-depth analysis and evaluation of what happened and procedures all across the country change and adapt. We need this sort of national analysis and support for schools when it comes preventing school violence as well.
  4. Improve the physical safety of our schools buildings. We’ve had to make architectural and access changes to places like airports, court buildings, stadiums, and embassies in terms of screening devices and procedures, locking and access systems, and surveillance. While these do bring some level of inconvenience, the reality is that we must respond to the threat-level in which our schools exist. The federal government should establish a zero-interest borrowing program for schools to upgrade and keep their buildings and screening technology state-of-the-art when it comes to school safety. Doing so would make school safety systems available to any school, regardless of their relative wealth.

These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need. Congress and the President need to act and now. A state-by-state and community-by-community approach to this will lead to a piece-meal approach that will take decades to implement. Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.

These four interconnected solutions provide proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today. They are also not going to be free. By my estimations, to implement these four solutions at scale in the United States we will need somewhere around $10 billion dollars. This is indeed a large sum.

However, let us put $10 billion in perspective, the President’s recent budget proposal calls for a $75 billion increase in defense spending, bringing that total to $686 billion for 2019 (and rising to $742 billion in 2023). In addition, he has proposed $25 billion for a border wall with Mexico. While making no statements on the prudence and necessity of these increases, I would argue that the threat facing our schools is more critical at this juncture.

Since Sandy Hook in 2012, there have been 438 people shot and 138 of them killed in 239 school shootings. If some foreign force were coming into our schools and murdering our children, we would consider it an act of war and marshal whatever it took to protect them.

As the Superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, a district with three school shootings in its history – including the Columbine shooting in 1999 – I can tell you this: when a community’s children are murdered the scars never heal and the pain never goes away.

Systems thinker Daniel Kim has said that foresight is the central ethic of leadership. More directly, if we can foresee that something bad will happen but do not take action, then this is a moral failure. Collectively, we have shrugged our shoulders and turned away after each of these tragedies.

No more, America. No more.

23 thoughts on “A Solution for America’s School Shooting Crisis

  1. Dr. Glass. Thank you for taking the time to write this piece and I agree with your 4 ideas. However, I would hope you could also join the many voices demanding stricter, national gun laws. Our ability to act thus far should not be seen as a reason to abandon this as a viable option. Although gun control is a politically divisive topic a majority of Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum, support stricter laws and see it as an integral part of a multi-pronged approach to end the ridiculous cycle of violence that we can all agree is not acceptable. Again, thank you for your time and bold leadership.

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  2. Sending the message to our students that schools are fortresses (“resource officers” and “physical safety of our buildings”) is the wrong approach. As children they deserve to feel safe to explore and learn, and not just at school (I understand that some of the causalities in Florida were outside of the school building). I’m sorry. There is no middle ground here. We must follow the rest of the civilized world, or no longer consider ourselves civilized. I remember Columbine, twenty years ago, when almost all of our school emptied out to march 11 miles to the Columbine memorial. My daughter joined a group the next week who traveled to Washington DC to meet with President Clinton and Janet Reno to lobby for legislation to close the gun show loop hole. Seems all but forgotten how our students, and parents turned to activism back then. Tom Mauser has never given up the campaign… and yet,….maybe this IS the moment, but not for half measures.

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  3. Thank you, Dr. Glass, for searching for a solution. I appreciate your willingness to look for answers instead of hand-weinging. I have one concern, and I ask you to please take a minute to explain how you will fix the “fix.” Resource officers are not trained in pedagogy or, more simply put, ages and stages. They don’t learn about autism, trigger points, racial discrepancies in the school justice system or mental illness. There are several instances where Resource Officers have overstepped and tied children to chairs, or hit them, or physically threatened them. These children had other issues, such as autism, that made them less of a threat and more in need of trained help. How do you propose to use Resource Officers while protecting different-needs children? Let’s not trade one horrific scene for another. Because we don’t need to be a school district with a lawsuit on our hands.

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  4. Since mental illness predominantly manifests itself during adolescence, teachers in middle schools and high schools should receive training on looking for and properly dealing with students who are struggling through any mental health issue. Teachers are on the front line and need better training. There also has to be, as you mention, the support services to handle those students in need, including counselors, school psychologists, out patient care, and in patient care.

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    1. The good news is that Jeffco is already taking steps to provide teachers and other non-mental health staff with some tools for supporting youth who are experiencing a mental health crisis. The Jeffco Student Engagement Office and Student Services Department offer Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) trainings throughout the year for any interested Jeffco personnel. YMHFA provides adults with an action plan for helping an adolescent (age 12-18) who is experiencing a mental health or addictions challenge or is in crisis. The training supports students and teachers alike, who may feel under equipped in this particular area.

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  5. I support most of your ideas, particularly regarding mental health services in the schools. To add to that, I suggest we have “resiliency” or “anti suicide prevention” programs in every classroom. There are excellent programs to be had, but currently not enough funding in Jeffco to purchase them and the staff to teach them. Our church has been involved in trying to support this, through John Widmeir.

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  6. I like the way the discussion is going toward resiliency and training staff about “trigger points”. This seems to me to fall under the umbrella of trauma-informed training. I believe this must replace the zero tolerance approach that is based in fear and less than respectful and supportive of children. The importance of inclusion and acceptance of children has been shown to contribute greatly to their success. I would like to see the district move in this direction and away from punitive consequences.

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  7. Thanks for a thoughtful reply with suggestions given yet another horrific, but ongoing situation, Dr. Glass. I am concerned about one thing you wrote about: the teams that “conduct threat assessments and provide follow-up support when students and families are in crisis.” As a special education advocate (we recently met) who assists parents in your district (as well as others) get the services that their children with special challenges need, I’m really worried about that statement because all four times that I have interacted with Jeffco’s threat assessment teams, they have had tragic outcomes because of the staff involved.
    The first time, I could get no one to enact that team on a student who was very dangerous. Your district refused to talk with me — despite a parent release. I finally got heard after writing to an assistant superintendent level person and mentioned the great liability the district was putting itself into.
    The second time I literally could not get that threat assessment team to do anything about a teen whose psychiatrist informed me that he was a danger to self and others; the threat assessment team refused to allow me to speak and when I wrote notes to the parents on my computer suggesting what to say, escorted the parents and me out of the meeting and the school. Bad outcomes and very unjust. Destroyed the student.
    Another was about a child whose parent had been begging for a special evaluation of her child for years to no avail; so I got that evaluation, and it ended up a terrible injustice for the child thanks to your special education director who was involved. Like the current shooter, they threw him out, deciding he was “socially maladjusted” and not deserving of special education services. He then imploded. Lucky for the district he did not have access to a weapon.
    A fourth should never have come to that threat assessment group (which has had a variety of people on it over the years) because the Special Education IEP for the student had not been adjusted for the new school and also not enacted. (Sadly, this sounds like what I read today about the FL shooter was apparently “dumped” from a small restricted “therapeutic” program into a general high school which was without appropriate resources and support.) One terrible school counselor later (still employed by the district, no doubt), who threatened the student that she was going to call Social Services on his father, the student then blurted out a defensive comment, the threat assessment team got involved, a lousy decision made, the student was traumatized and retraumatized and eventually left.
    Sadly, I have been horrified by Jeffco’s “threat assessment” teams. I hope you will looking into them carefully Dr. Glass. I am ccertainly not the only special ed advocate (or parent who attempts to do this alone) who struggles with many of Jeffco’s special education directors to get appropriate services for students, including but certainly not limited to those with mental illnesses or physical conditions that present as such, nor am I the only one who has been severely dismayed by the district’s threat assessment teams. And, no, this is not limited to Jeffco — these situations occur in many districts across the country — but you can do something about what happens in yours.
    Thanks for caring about students and being willing to think outside the box. Please feel free to contact me if you would like additional input.
    Yael Cohen, MA
    yael@getiephelpcom

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    1. Thanks for the feedback, Yael. It is my experience that these individual situations you describe invariably have more than one side to the story. We will reach out to get yours, and then investigate further to make sure we have the whole picture, and then make sure we learn and improve. As to the larger question of threat assessments and interventions, there simply must be a procedure in place to evaluate threats and students in distress and then take appropriate professional action. If your point is that we need to get better at this and have greater capacity in this area – that is the reason I included #2 in the blog posting so we may have some common ground on that point.

      Hi again, Yael. I did have our team look into this some more. We cannot find any records of these incidents occurring. Please contact our Exec Director of Safety & Security at john.mcdonald2@jeffco.k12.co.us and we can get more detail to find out more. Thanks again.

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    2. Yael. Thank you for giving the real prospective from the inside. Dr. Glass didn’t seem to know about your incidents, but I’m sure these things happen everyday. I couldn’t help thinking that the proposals by Dr. Glass seem like what I see in the medical system today. Have pain, take a pain killer.

      What I’m saying is that all these measures are just a band-aid and will not stop the horrific trend we are seeing in our schools today. They will only make it worse by isolating and labeling people.

      I feel that the way to stop these isolating tactics is to install programs to include everyone.

      If a student is part of a network that is fun for everyone, then I’m sure they will not purchase an assault riffle and try to hurt his friends.
      Yes, there are students that are in pain because of their situations and upbringing, but they have stories to share with others that understand their fear because they’ve been there. If they have a place to go to talk and feel understood and included, then we are half way there. That’s when the healing begins. You’re not healing anyone with programs that search their backpacks and point guns in their faces. Let’s spent the $10 billion on counselors not police.

      Parents need to step up and be more proactive too.

      We need to utilize the schools to educate more than just math and science. We need to show kids how to be good and productive members of our society. Teach them to fish. Give them something positive to look forward to in their lives and they will go in that direction.

      It’s human nature, if you show them the good stuff, they will choose that over the alternative.

      There’s a lot of good that happens in school, but every student needs to be a part of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Absolutely phenomenal.

    Thank you again for holding space for us and speaking such powerful truth.

    You are very appreciated.

    :),

    Julia

    Julia Fliss 6th Grade Language Arts Teacher WEB + Student Leadership Co-Sponsor Evergreen Middle School jfliss@jeffco.k12.co.us/jfliss@jeffcoschools.us

    “Tell me and I forget; Teach me and I remember; Involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin ________________________________

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  9. Dr. Glass, I support your efforts, and the four points noted, as a response to school security. I see two items that should be considered immediately to further support. 1) Make it a requirement that principals and staff stress that all students, regardless of differences, feel accepted and a sense of belonging. When one is ostracized it leads to anger and potential violence. How one is treated has a major impact. 2) Open the opportunity, sooner than later for trained, qualified, armed personnel (it is believed that numerous retired police officers and military personnel would serve as volunteers) to fill in as security officers. As our Constitution allows guns in our society, criminals will take advantage of schools that are “gun free zones.” It would be an aberration of our duty to protect students if we fail to provide adequate vigilance and defense, particularly in these trying times. My most sincere appreciation!

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  10. First, I want to express how impressed I am that this post has turned into a discussion. There is no naming calling or “yelling” about how wrong someone is because they have a different point of view. it is very refreshing to see true dialogue happening regarding a major issue that needs to be addressed.

    Second, thank you Dr. Glass for giving this issue some serious, politically unbiased, thought. The four points you outline may not be the entire solution, but they are, in my humble opinion, a fantastic place to start.

    As I read the comments, it seems to me that the biggest (constructive) criticisms were centered on a lack of education and/or understanding. Fair points. But I don’t believe Dr. Glass was suggesting that these four points were clear cut, simple solutions. Again, they are a starting point. A foundation to build on and grow from. Yes, the SRO’s would need more training than they currently receive specific to working in a school with different types of students and a different type of potential threat than they would see working “on the streets”. Yes, the teachers, staff, and administrators within the schools would need more training to recognize different types of issues and how to deal with each individual situation without bringing undue attention to a student who simply needs a little extra support. No, we don’t want out kids walking into a building everyday that feels like a fortress. But it also makes sense to employ some protective measures – I don’t really want my kids to walk through metal detectors on the way to class each day, but if it brings them home to me every night, so be it.

    With a wife and two kids who walk into a Jeffco School building everyday, I’m tired of feeling sick to my stomach every morning when they head out the door. We need to do something. Now. Abolishing the Second Amendment is not going to happen – certainly not anytime soon. That doesn’t mean we don’t need stricter gun laws or, at the very least, a better background check system. But that is not the entire solution. Many things need to change. And I believe Dr. Glass has highlighted some very important changes to consider….

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  11. I too appreciate the tenor of this discussion. What I feel is lacking is a focus on anger management. I agree with the earlier comment that we need to help everyone to feel accepted and part of the whole, to avoid ostracizing and angering those who feel excluded. It seems to me that bullying prevention and dealing with such behavior would stem a majority of the school shootings I hear about. I would like to think that anger management curriculum already exists and could be implemented districtwide. I simply think the national tendency to relegate shooters into the spectrum of mentally fragile fails to address the very real consequences of anger unanswered.

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  12. As grandparents to seven grandchildren in six different Denver Metro schools, we applaud the fact that all of you are taking the time and effort to seek intelligent workable solutions to this huge threat to the children and grandchildren of our families, our communities and our country. Please persevere and God Bless You!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The Columbine shooting prompted me to get on the front lines of the teen trenches. The cover of Newsweek asked: “Why?” Many had answers, but first-hand, direct comprehension is what I sought. I became a high school counselor. I figured the life-altering news would fade from the headlines, but I made a vow to keep it on the forefront of my mind, heart and soul.

    If you could be a fly on the wall in a high school counselor’s office, none of what we are reaping would surprise you. We have to sow differently on many levels to reap differently. It is insanity to keep hoping anything will be different if we go back to leaving ourselves to our devices (literally).

    After 18+ years, the super encouraging game-changing difference is that the reinforcements are here. They are coming in the form of the next generation. I am so moved to see where the never-ending pain is not merely a source of PTSD and victimization. There is mobilization. It has been tough to keep positive, but now there is a major spark! The momentum now has to pick up instead of fading from the headlines.

    Let’s keep it simple. Rather than going after the many opportunities to find fault, I wonder if everyone can look in the mirror and admit there is room for improvement. In some small, medium or massive way, you can be part of the solution. Help sustain the momentum. The helpers get burned out, stressed out, tired out and need reinforcements. Provide some back up. Provide the attention any kid craves- or is perhaps starving for these days. The next gen needs you.

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