#17: Preparing For School Shootings

Table of Contents:

Preparing For School Shootings
Threat Assessment—Emergency Management—Crisis Communications
Active Shooter Situations—Prevention
Planning—Mitigating—Avoiding Liability
Compare and Contrast High School Shootings
The Dickey and Tiahrt Amendments
Vetoing State Gun Regulations
Political Reality


Preparing For School Shootings

Shooters prepare for shooting up schools. So it only makes sense that schools should also prepare. Shooters come in all sizes, shapes and cognitive readiness. They shoot from different perspectives. But they have commonalities too. They know guns. They are invested in gun culture. They have all the makings of success in their chosen way to die. They have spent enough time at gun ranges to aim true, not flinch when targets are hit, and are misunderstood by much of the world they inhabit.

A few may have dabbled in firearms training. It’s possible that some searched the internet in preparation. “NRA EXPLORE” is one of many places offering firearms training. There is no data confirming that any of America’s actual school shooters went there, but it is available. Their website says, “With roughly 1 million people attending NRA training courses annually, the NRA is recognized nationally as the Gold Standard for firearm safety training. Whether you’re a new or prospective gun owner or hunter in search of training, whatever your age or level of expertise, whatever type of firearm you’re interested in, NRA has the course for you.” Hopefully, people who make up school threat assessment teams have compatible skills.[1]

Threat Assessment—Emergency Management—Crisis Communications

Gun violence on a school campus is always tragic. Preventing it is always problematic. But modern educational institutions focus on the unthinkable—gun violence on their campus. Experience shows campus shooters frequently attack in predictable ways. Nearly all have previously engaged in behaviors that concern others. Most schools today created something called a “Threat Assessment Team.” They acquire and study information about other schools that have experienced gun violence. Their job is to assess, look for clues, anticipate weakness in existing campus security, and intervene to manage a threat. They often contact other schools or law enforcement with helpful resources. “The training and composition of an institution’s threat assessment team is critical to its effectiveness. Schools should hire a threat assessment expert—often a mental health or law enforcement professional—to train and advise its team.”[2]

Beyond threat assessment teams, public and private school systems develop emergency management plans, crisis communications plans, and train faculty and staff. Emergency management planning addresses, “Critical response practices, such as lockdowns, evacuations, parent-student reunification, and how to mobilize mental health services. Institutions tailor plans for different districts, campuses, and buildings instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.”[3]

Crisis communications plans deal are “Honest and timely communication when a school shooting occurs can improve public trust, protect the institution’s reputation, and maintain financial stability. A crisis communications team should include personnel with expertise in communications and influential administrators who may be spokespersons in a crisis. Ensure the team receives media training and meets before a crisis to prepare a coordinated response.”[4]

Active Shooter Situations—Prevention

Common sense says that if you’ve seen one school shooter, you’ve seen one school shooter. No two are exactly alike and no profile exists for an active shooter. But there is a great deal of research on common signs and indicators of possible gun violence. Those signals suggest the possibility of volatile action by active shooters. Once signaled, governing boards proactively seek ways to prevent tragedy. “By highlighting common pre-attack behaviors displayed by past offenders, federal researchers have sought to enhance the detection and prevention of tragic attacks of violence, including active shooting situations. Several agencies within the federal government continue to explore incidents of targeted violence in the effort to identify these potential “warning signs.”

In 2002, the Federal Bureau of Investigation published a monograph on workplace violence, including problematic behaviors of concern that may telegraph violent ideations and plans. In 2007, the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Department of Education, and the FBI collaborated to produce the report Campus Attacks, Targeted Violence Affecting Institutions of Higher Learning, which examined lethal or attempted lethal attacks at U.S. universities and colleges from 1900 to 2008.”[5]

Specialized units in the federal government, such as the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, support behaviorally based operational assessments of persons of concern in a variety of settings. They look for persons who appear be on a trajectory toward a violent act. A review of current research, threat assessment literature, and active shooting incidents, combined with the extensive case experience of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, suggest there are observable pre-attack behaviors that, if recognized, could disrupt a planned attack. While incomplete, there are known behaviors schools use to anticipate gun violence on their campuses.[6]

  • Development of a personal grievance.
  • Contextually inappropriate and recent acquisitions of multiple weapons.
  • Contextually inappropriate and recent escalation in target practice and weapons training.
  • Contextually inappropriate and recent interest in explosives.
  • Contextually inappropriate and intense interest or fascination with previous shootings or mass attacks.
  • Experience of a significant real or perceived personal loss in the weeks and/or months leading to the attack, such as a death, breakup, divorce or loss of a job.
  • Studies and experts agree that few active shooters have had previous arrests for violent crimes.

Planning—Mitigating—Avoiding Liability

Shamus P. O’Meara wrote a nine-page report titled “School Security Design: Planning to Mitigate Risk and Avoid Liability.[7] “The high profile of school shootings and incidents of violence involving our nation’s schools has brought about comprehensive federal and state emergency management and security guidelines, standards, and best practices. School districts and higher educational institutions, and their design and construction partners, should jointly consult these important resources when addressing school and campus security design. With appropriate focus and collaboration, school security design can help mitigate and prevent risk and avoid legal exposure in the event of a crisis.”

Compare and Contrast High School Shootings

Preparing for gun violence is best done in context—looking at the past does not always predict the future. But it always helps to remember the past in an effort to do better in the future. Hindsight is 20-20. Compare the 1999 Columbine High School shootings with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School disaster nineteen years later. “On April 20, 1999, two male students walked into Columbine High School and started shooting. By the time it was over, 15 students were dead and 24 more had been injured. America had changed forever. But in some ways, it hasn’t changed at all. Nineteen years later, 17 students were murdered on at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. That event marked the 208th American school shooting post-Columbine. Since Columbine, a total of 143 people have been killed in American school shootings, and 290 more have been hurt. Over these past two decades, more than 221,000 students have experienced gun violence at their schools.”[8]

The ACLU compared those two shootings in 2019, noting, “The physical and psychological harm to students goes far beyond that number. Today, practically every pre-K through 12th-grade student is required, multiple times a year, to endure the trauma of ‘soft lockdown’ drills, where they huddle silently in a corner and practice not attracting the attention of someone intent on doing them harm. In an increasing number of schools, schools are actively and aggressively spying on their own student bodies. The harmful message these students are receiving is loud and clear and echoes like an ageless Police song: ‘every move you make…, every word you say, every game you play…, I’ll be watching you.’”

The ACLU contends, “Because of an ideological dispute and the exercise of pure political power, American policymakers have been denied the foundational data and research they need to analyze the impact of gun control measures on school shootings. This is the case because of two acts of Congress.[9]

The Dickey and Tiahrt Amendments

The Dickey Amendment mandates that “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control. In the same spending bill, Congress earmarked $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, the exact amount that had previously been allocated to the agency for firearms research the previous year, for traumatic brain injury-related research. The amendment was lobbied for by the National Rifle Association (NRA), and named after its author Jay Dickey, a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives from Arkansas. Although the Dickey Amendment did not explicitly ban it, for about two decades the CDC avoided all research on gun violence for fear it would be financially penalized. Congress clarified the law in 2018 to allow for such research, and the FY2020 federal omnibus spending bill earmarked the first funding for it since 1996.”[10]

The Tiahrt Amendment is, “A provision of the U.S. Department of Justice appropriations bill that prohibits the National Tracing Center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from releasing information from its firearms trace database to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation. This precludes gun trace data from being used in academic research of gun use in crime. Additionally, the law blocks any data legally released from being admissible in civil lawsuits against gun sellers or manufacturers.[11]

Mayors Against Illegal Guns[12] argues, “Having further access to the ATF database would help municipal police departments track down sellers of illegal guns and curb crime. These groups are trying to repeal the Tiahrt Amendment. Numerous police organizations oppose the Tiahrt Amendment, such as the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents the 69 largest police departments in the United States, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, the Police Executive Research Forum, the Police Foundation, the chiefs of police of nearly every major city in California, and others. On the other hand, it is supported by the Fraternal Order of Police, which says it is “concern[ed] for the safety of law enforcement officers and the integrity of law enforcement investigations. For example, the disclosure of trace requests can inadvertently reveal the names of undercover officers or informants, endangering their safety. It may also tip off the target of an investigation. The Tiahrt Amendment is also supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which says that undoing the Tiahrt Amendment would lead to a rash of lawsuits against gun dealers.”[13]

Vetoing State Gun Regulations

In its expansive study, the ACLU reported, “America’s gun lobby has a virtual veto over gun control legislation in many of our nation’s state legislatures and on the federal level. In fact, when ‘following the school shooting in Parkland, FL’ the U.S. Department of Education formed a school safety commission to produce ‘policy recommendations in an effort to help prevent future tragedies’ Secretary of Education and commission chair Betsy DeVos told Congress the commission would not even look into the role guns play in school violence. While there is no telling if this logjam could be broken by the production of irrefutable, data-driven studies showing that appropriate gun control laws effectively reduce incidences of gun violence, including in schools, the gun lobby has not been willing to take that risk. It was for that reason that the aforementioned restrictions on federal gun research and data sharing were put into place.”[14]

Political Reality

Only Congress is empowered to repeal its legislation. As long as Congress maintains the Dickey and Tiahrt Amendments, researchers paid by the federal government cannot study the link between gun control and reducing gun violence in schools. If America and our federal Congress wants to eliminate, or at least minimize the obvious harm to students from gun violence on campus, we should “resist the massive marketing efforts of surveillance technology companies, who are looking to profit off our fear. And if, at long last, the results of gun control studies are allowed to come in, we can finally have a full and well-informed discussion about how we can best keep our students safe.”[15]


[1] https://explore.nra.org/interests/firearms-training/

[2] https://www.edurisksolutions.org/blogs/?Id=3152

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://rems.ed.gov/IHEPreventingAnActiveShooter.aspx?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

[6] Ibid. For information on warning signs of violence at schools, see The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Secret Service (2002) available at http://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf. See also, U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, “Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates”, May 2002, available at http://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/threatassessmentguide.pdf.

[7] https://www.olwklaw.com/docs/School_Security_Design_(Shamus_P._O_Meara).pdf

[8] https://www.aclu.org/blog/privacy-technology/surveillance-technologies/student-surveillance-versus-gun-control-school

[9] Ibid.

[10]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dickey_Amendment

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiahrt_Amendment

[12] https://mayors.everytown.org/

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiahrt_Amendment

[14] https://www.aclu.org/blog/privacy-technology/surveillance-technologies/student-surveillance-versus-gun-control-school

[15] Ibid. Chad Marlow, Senior Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU. March 4, 2019.

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