It is in the human quest to know what is to blame for the mass shootings at schools. We have an insatiable need to assign blame as a way of coping and understanding.
From Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and many others in the United States, to those in Canada at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, Taber’s W.R. Myers High School in Alberta, and most recently at La Loche Community School in Saskatchewan, educators and law enforcement seem baffled and bewildered at how to prevent mass shootings in schools.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group working to prevent gun violence and build safer communities, between early 2013 and late 2015, there were 164 reports of school shootings in the United States, few of which made national or international headlines. That equates to about one school shooting per week.
It all started in 1966
Things seemed simpler in the days of black and white television. Educational centers were hallowed ground where crime was rare. Teachers shared a pedestal with police, clergy, and society’s leaders.
That all changed beginning on August 01, 1966 when 25 year old former Marine sharpshooter and mechanical engineering student, Charles Whitman, perched atop the tower on the University of Texas at Austin campus, and shot 43 people in a 95 minute bloodbath, 14 of whom died (officially reclassified as 15 dead when David Gunby died in 2001 at age 58 as a direct result of injuries received in 1966 and the Coroner ruling Gunby’s death a homicide).
The shooting was an event without precedent and was the embryo for the creation and proliferation of SWAT teams that now impregnate police forces.
Whitman knew he had mental problems, and he knew he would die that day too. In his handwritten letter left at the scene where he murdered his mother and wife prior to embarking on his sniper carnage, he asked that there be an autopsy performed and that his brain studied, explaining his long suffering of severe headaches and depression.
At autopsy, it was discovered that Whitman had a pecan sized brain tumor, but an inquiry into the mass shooting denied the tumor played any role in the campus shooting or in that of the killing of his wife and mother.
Awakening in Columbine
Littleton, Colorado achieved infamy in a way nobody wanted, save for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, students of Columbine High School and perpetrators of what was described in 1999 as “the deadliest high school shooting in US history.” The pair slaughtered twelve students and one teacher, and injured twenty one others before committing suicide.
Both Harris and Klebold were considered outcasts in the community, never quite fitting into any prescribed pigeon hole for which school cliques can be ruthlessly notorious. They were heavily armed with multiple guns and knives, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and 99 home-made bombs. They were determined to make their mark in history.
To the extent that the pair reportedly aspired to mimic the devastation and impact of the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, and given the level of media attention that continues to this day, it could be argued that they achieved those aims.
That said, some would add that the massacre at Columbine not only woke the nation up to bullying and mental health issues at school, but that the duo also touched off a wave of copy cats intent on making their own impressive statement of revenge against perceived injustices.
Taking the Plunge
School boards began openly discussing arming teachers and staff to countermand what some would describe as an epidemic in terms of the volume and intensity of school violence.
Texas has long marched to the beat of its own drum and therefore it should come as little surprise that a school district in the Lone Star State would be the first on the continent to usher in a measure to arm their teachers.
Located in north central Texas in eastern Wilbarger County, the Harrold Independent School District voted in favor of arming school staff in 2007 in response to not only the Columbine shooting, but particularly that of the 2006 West Nickel Mines School, an Amish school in rural Pennsylvania, where circumstances mirrored those of Harrold.
Sparsely populated and located along a major highway connection between metropolitan cities and a considerable distance from first responders and the nearest major tactical team, geography was a primary consideration in the decision to arm school staff as a way to provide safety for Harrold’s 120 students.
Under the District’s established policy, employees are permitted to carry concealed guns on school property and to school board meetings. As a rural community in Texas where hunting is a pastime enjoyed by many, protection from critters is a necessity, and in the state with some of the most liberal gun ownership laws in the US, residents of every age are not unfamiliar with being around guns of all sizes and descriptions.
Asked if he believes arming teachers makes his school safer, Harrold Independent School District Superintendent David Thweatt emphatically answers affirmatively, adding philosophically “Bad things happen… Lots of people like the idea of not being responsible for their own fate. .. I don’t like being a victim”. In speaking with Thweatt, there can be no illusions on his well-informed stance on how being armed makes everyone safer, and he makes no apologies for taking responsibility for protecting himself, his colleagues, his family, and his students, rather than waiting for a law enforcement response.
Since the Harrold Independent School District took the plunge in allowing employees to carry guns, more than half the states in America have passed legislation allowing school districts to do so. Some have even gone so far as to propose deputizing armed teachers, as allowed for under the Protection of Texas Children Act, although Thweatt is quick to point out the differences of deputizing teachers to his Guardian model.
While the Harrold Independent School District opted to allow staff to carry concealed guns, it is not the only solution in arming teachers. Some school districts in the United States have created a central armory inside their schools, so nobody actually carries weapons, prompting questions about how accessible those weapons would be in a tactical emergency situation. Other schools have chosen to arm only a select few staff, rather than leaving it open as to how many guns would be on school property at any given time. Some have chosen to inform students which employees are armed, while others hold that information close to their chest. Still others have proposed wall mounted gun safes in each classroom with an authorized user.
The mobility of carrying concealed guns offered under Thweatt’s Guardian model appears to answer coverage concerns of classrooms and school yards other practices cannot.
Arming teachers appears to be a largely rural solution. Many urban school districts have long employed the use of armed security guards or armed volunteer parents as School Marshals. Proximity to rapid police response and SWAT-style forces allow urban school districts the luxury of taking a more hands off approach. Response time is the biggest enemy for rural schools. Columbine had one uniformed armed security that was located outside, but on school property, the high school at the time of the shootings
With Canada’s more conservative approach to guns, the prospect of arming teachers in this country isn’t even on anyone’s radar, being quickly dismissed as a typical American recipe – add guns and stir.
Not Everyone is in Favor of Arming Teachers with Guns
For its part, the largest teacher’s union in the United States, the National Education Association (NEA), representing some three million members, sees no redeeming qualities in arming teachers. “Guns have no place in our schools. Period. We must do everything we can to reduce the possibility of any gunfire in schools, and concentrate on ways to keep all guns off school property and ensure the safety of children and school employees.``
The NEA is not alone. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence adds its clout against guns in schools, calling the notion of arming teachers ``insane``. The Violence Policy Center (VPC), a Washington, DC based educational organization working to stop gun death and injury in America says, `` The focus should remain on preventing guns from getting into schools, rather than relying on teachers or other education professionals to prevail in a shootout.``
With the Second Amendment firmly entrenched in the US Constitution, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed", gun ownership advocates view any limitation to their right to bear arms as a slippery slope into tyranny. Conversely, having more guns owned by law abiding citizens makes society safer.
Promoting such a viewpoint distracts from getting to the root causes of school shootings. While the Second Amendment needs to be respected and upheld, one might think that setting aside any arguments about the right to own guns has any bearing on identifying how these youth are accessing massive amounts of weaponry and ammunition outside what might be considered acceptable for personal protection.
Further muddying the waters might be the culpability of parents of mass shooters, if they failed to secure guns, or failed to obtain health care intervention, or any other failure on their part as wardens. Regardless of any such shortcomings, it doesn’t change the outcomes of the horrific school shootings. And, as if the waters couldn’t get any murkier, it should not escape anyone’s attention that school shootings occur on college campuses as well, where students are of, or approaching, the age of majority.
Too, not all school shootings are the work of a student, as was the case with gunman Charles Carl Roberts IV where he shot eight school girls at the West Nickel Mines School, killing five.
Looking for a Scapegoat in Mental Illness
Using mental illness as the raison d’etre for school shootings is an oversimplification of a much deeper and darker issue. Media tends to quickly suggest or assign mental illness, diagnosed or otherwise, as the instigator behind school shootings, something at which mental health practitioners collectively roll their eyes and audibly sigh.
Says Shannon Frattaroli, PhD, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health “Mental illness, in and of itself, isn’t a risk factor for committing violence. We see that people who are suffering from mental illness are more likely to be victims of gun violence than those who are not suffering from mental illness.”
Some in the mental health field equate the stigma of marrying mental illness and mass shootings in two ways to that of cancer.
Firstly, there is no one singular cause for cancer and therefore there can be no one singular treatment. In further using the cancer analogy, there are different reasons that trigger perpetrators of school shootings, and therefore, the need exists to cut a wide swath in addressing the prevention and treatment of school shootings.
And secondly, not everybody with cancer dies. So too, not everybody with a mental illness commits a violent crime such as a school shooting. However, some cancer patients do die, just as some school shooters suffer mental illnesses.
What seems ubiquitous among mental health professionals is that predicting school shootings is impossible, just as that of predicting mass shootings anywhere. Some believe there are key indicators that may help identify students who require intervention, regardless of whether the student has any intention of going on a shooting rampage.
In a study published by the American Journal of Public Health, lead author and Vanderbilt University Professor of Psychiatry, Dr. Jonathan Metzl, supports the position that rather than trying to predict a mental illness as the cause of school shootings, it is far more productive to focus on known predictors of gun violence, namely alcohol and drug use, history of violence, access to firearms, and personal relationship stress.
Evolving the Conversation
It would be wrong to think school districts that choose to arm employees rely exclusively on this solution alone for their security protocols.
Typical preventative security measures at schools only scratch the surface. Installation of metal detectors and surveillance cameras, employing roaming guards, profiling students that exhibit warning signs for violence, and similar passive countermeasures all form part of security in many school districts.. Obviously, it has not been robust enough, and all signs point ominously to it being insufficient in the future.
Misguided as it may be in blaming mental illness for school shootings, the conversation surrounding mental health in Canada has generally evolved to be more open and has broken the stigma that it is the bastard child of public health. That must be seen in a positive light.
Publicity campaigns against bullying and sexual assault in schools and in the community have been successful in raising awareness of violence and mental health issues. Both are now seen as part of the broader spectrum of health care delivery in Canada.
In his 2012 report, School Shootings and Student Mental Health – What Lies Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg, Minneapolis based psychiatrist, William Dikel, MD, advocates an intervention model of locating a mental health clinic inside the school as a real solution, providing easy accessibility for, and closer monitoring of, students.
Somebody needs to open the chequebook and pinpoint effective methods of early intervention. The conversation has begun but more animated action and innovative thinking is paramount if devastating tragedies such as La Loche and similar once weekly school shootings are ever to be prevented.
The Last Word
Almost a decade into their policy of permitting employees to carry guns, Harrold Independent School District’s David Thweatt believes his policy is prudent in preventing school shootings. He adds that nobody is looking forward to a time when they may have to draw their weapons, summing it up this way, “I wouldn’t want to have to call a parent to say we had a shooting at school, but if it did happen, guess what? The bad guy is dead and your child is coming home”.