A Framework for School Safety and Risk Management

This year’s holiday season marked the fifth anniversary of the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Since 2013, there have been at least 272 school shootings in the United States—about one per week, according to Everytown USA, a nonprofit organization that researches and reports on public gun violence. In 2017 alone, there were 64 shootings at schools and universities, with 31 of those resulting in injury or death.

As Everytown USA asks, how many more students will have to die before legislators pass common-sense laws to prevent gun violence and save lives?

Until that question is settled, teachers and administrators are on the front lines of protecting their schools from targeted shootings. In a new article published this month in The Educational Forum, school violence expert Ann Marie C. Lenhardt, professor of counseling and human services at Canisius College, reports on “A Framework for School Safety and Risk Management: Results from a Study of 18 Targeted School Shooters.”  With coauthors Lemuel W. Graham and Melissa L. Farrell, Lenhardt expands on the long-term study they first reported in the Forum in 2010.

According to the authors, although awareness of targeted school violence has increased in the last decade, school-based mental health services and resources with a framework for threat assessment and prevention are still largely absent. The authors’ current paper builds on their previous study of 15 cases of targeted school shooters between 1996 and 2005, which focused exclusively on school culture, peer/social dynamics, and disclosure of intentions. The new paper focuses on 18 premeditated cases (16 incidents) of targeted secondary school shooters between 1996 and 2012, using publicly available resources to look at the contextual root variables.

In their new paper, Lenhardt and her coauthors examined 22 indicators in three areas—individual factors and behaviors, family dynamics, and triggering events—and found that the higher the number of risk factors present, the greater the potential for violent acts.

According to the authors’ data, environmental factors within the family may play a key role in how an adolescent responds to stress. Results showed that 94% percent of the shooters had demonstrated a lack of resiliency or an inability to rebound from an unsatisfactory experience, hindrance, or insult. This lack of inner resolve or self-confidence, coupled with poor coping skills in 83% of the shooters, was the deadliest combination of indicators measured. In addition, 67% of the shooters felt alienated, had been bullied, or had issued a violent threat. Five indicators were present in 61% of cases: signs of depression, lack of empathy, poor anger management, intent to carry out threats, and a history of previous threats or attempted suicide. Most of the shooters (83%) had access to weapons in their homes.

The authors recommend that teachers and principals use the study’s indicators to identify students at risk of violent behavior, and then take these steps to preclude school shootings: enhance mental health services in schools, include threat-assessment services, and promote family engagement in services. Everytown USA points out that in addition to the heartbreaking losses from targeted homicides, affected schools experience a drop in student enrollment and a nearly 5% decline in surviving students’ standardized test scores.

Lenhardt and her coauthors note that all students who receive counseling support services can become more resilient and, as a result, will be more likely to achieve academic and life goals.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share Lenhardt, Graham, and Farrell’s research with the education community. Access their article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through January 31, 2018.

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