TWENTY years ago, on April 20, 1999, Americans were shocked when two high school students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., methodically shot to death a teacher and 12 fellow students before turning their weapons on themselves.
This was not the first time students had resorted to murder. The first recorded school shooting in America was on Nov. 12, 1840, when University of Virginia student Joseph Semmes fatally wounded law professor John Anthony Gardner Davis.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last. The grisly scenario would repeat itself again and again in schools across the nation, including Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, when a 23-year-old senior with a history of mental health problems shot and killed 32 students and faculty members before committing suicide. On Feb. 14, 2018, 17 students and staff lost their lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Virginia’s bipartisan House Select Committee on School Safety was created last year by House Speaker Kirk Cox to come up with recommendations to avoid the “clear and preventable mistakes … made by authorities and officials in charge” in Parkland.
Last December, the Select Committee published a report with 24 recommendations to create “a team-oriented and consensus-driven approach to studying and improving school safety in the Commonwealth.” They ranged from increasing funding for school resource officers to changing the date of Virginia’s primary elections.
Some of those proactive recommendations were passed by the General Assembly this year and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, including:
- H.B. 1733, which requires school divisions to enter into a memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement that specifically outlines the powers—and duties—of school resource officers. This is to avoid the kind of confusion and inaction that ensued in Parkland as suspect Nikolas Cruz allegedly reloaded five times while armed Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson hid in a stairwell outside. Peterson later claimed in court that he had “no legal duty” to enter the school.
A Florida commission investigating the Parkland shooting recommended that school resource officers be given “frequent, thorough and realistic training to handle high-risk, high- stress situations, especially single-officer response training.” That should be the norm in Virginia as well.
- H.B. 1729 requires school counselors to spend at least 80 percent of their time during normal school hours actually counselling students. John McDonald, security chief for Columbine’s school district, told The Washington Post that nearly all school shooters gave some indication—to friends, on social media, in dark essays or online diaries—about what they were planning to do, which is why even vague, unspecified threats should be taken seriously. If school counselors are talking to students most of the day, they might hear something that could prevent a tragedy.
- H.B. 1732 requires school boards to develop training on safety procedures for students and staff in the event of an emergency, and to practice those procedures at least once every school year.
- H.B. 1734 requires Virginia’s Center for School and Campus Safety to develop a case management tool for use by public elementary and secondary school threat-assessment teams, and requires each team to report back on how the tool was utilized.
The budget bill (H.B. 1700) also provides an additional $12 million to fund school safety programs. However, the state Senate killed a House-passed bill that would have moved the primaries to the third Tuesday of June, when school is out.
This package of school safety legislation is part of an ongoing attempt to identify potential threats and proactively diffuse them before they get to the active-shooter stage.
According to publicly available K–12 school shooting statistics going back to 1970 compiled by the Advanced Thinking in Homeland Security program at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security, school shootings happen every year. The number of fatalities spiked last year at 56, but are down to four so far this year.
The vast majority of school shooters were lone male students in high school using a handgun. Most of the shootings were triggered by an escalation of a prior dispute (367) or were gang-related (164), rather than being an indiscriminate attack (55) or the result of bullying (34) or mental health issues (32). Most of their victims were also male.
The most deadly month for school shootings is January, the start of a new year, followed by September, the start of a new school year. They are most likely to occur during the school day on a Friday. Slightly more shootings have occurred outside on school property than inside the school building itself.
The new laws and data from past incidents will help school security teams better evaluate potential threats and focus their efforts on where they will have the most effect.