How to Help Prevent School Shootings: 7 Things That Will Make a Difference
Figuring out how to help prevent school shootings is essential to protecting kids and teachers, and these simple but effective strategies can make a huge impact.
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What you can do right now to prevent future school shootings
I was teaching in an early childhood classroom just over 100 miles north of Newtown when news of the Sandy Hook shooting reached us. Following that tragic day, my co-teacher and I sat together in our empty classroom for a conversation neither of us wanted to have. Prompted by a visit from the local police chief, we devised an active shooter plan for the three- to six-year-olds in our care. In detail, we analyzed which students might flee, which might freeze, where our best hiding places were, and which books and vocabulary we should utilize to maximize our chance of keeping our students quiet and calm. We forced ourselves to assess each student’s personality and anticipated response to an emergency situation, as well as the likelihood that our classroom’s location, 10 seconds from the main entrance, would leave us any time to prepare.
In the weeks and years that followed, there has been very little substantial change in policies that could help prevent school shootings. But gun violence has skyrocketed, and class “quiet drills” have become commonplace, as students learn to line up at the sound of a bell and squeeze into a storage closet. In recent years, 95 percent of K–12 schools in the United States have implemented similar active shooter drills. As an educator, what has crystallized for me is that “thoughts and prayers,” debates over arming teachers, and even our police chief’s declaration that we were lucky because our classroom was full of heavy materials that four-year-olds could lob at an intruder are not sufficient to prevent school shootings. Nor is it the responsibility of a teacher or a six-year-old to stop future attacks.
The recent mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, brought me sharply back to the weeks following the Sandy Hook massacre, when grief, disbelief, and anxiety threaded through my classroom and so many others across the country. There are several ways to help the victims and families in Uvalde, but the larger question remains: How can we prevent future school shootings?
People in the United States overwhelmingly support gun reform laws, but several factors combine forces to make it exceedingly difficult to stop violence in this country. However, it is not impossible. Below, you’ll find a series of research-based strategies for how to help prevent school shootings like those that occurred unnecessarily in Newtown, Uvalde, and so many other communities.
Support gun violence prevention organizations
There are many reputable, well-established organizations working to institute gun reform. You can help prevent school shootings by learning from, donating to, and volunteering with these organizations.
- Everytown for Gun Safety: This organization is dedicated to researching the causes of and potential solutions for gun violence, supporting survivors, advancing gun safety legislation, and electing candidates with gun sense. More than 8 million people have joined this national grassroots movement.
- Sandy Hook Promise: Based in Newtown, Connecticut, this national nonprofit is led by several family members whose loved ones were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The group offers prevention programs that train students and educators to identify at-risk behavior, minimize social isolation, and safely report concerns that a student might hurt himself or others.
- The Brady Campaign: For more than 45 years, the Brady Campaign has worked to develop comprehensive, action-oriented solutions to the nation’s gun violence epidemic. Brady works to stem gun crimes, strengthen gun control legislation, provide education on gun storage, mobilize youth in the fight against gun violence, hold the gun industry accountable, and promote free access to gun crime statistics and data.
- Giffords Law Center to End Gun Violence: Named after former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011, this group mobilizes voters and lawmakers to fight for gun safety. It also supports the election of leaders committed to public safety, advocates for sensible and detailed gun reform legislation, and offers extensive education and statistics on gun violence, including a state-by-state gun control report card and facts on the factors that feed gun violence.
If you volunteer with these organizations, you might disseminate literature on gun violence facts, canvas neighborhoods, organize letter-writing campaigns to your representatives, attend rallies, and more.
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Reach out to your elected officials
Your voice has power. Call and write to your elected officials to demand that they support gun reform legislation. Use this list to find the contact information for Congressional representatives where you live. Prepare talking points, including an introduction to who you are, where you live, and what specific legislation you’re advocating for. Here are some ideas for commonsense gun laws that a majority of Americans support:
- Requiring universal background checks
- Banning assault-style weapons
- Limiting large-capacity magazines
- Requiring gun licensing and gun ownership education
- Preventing violent felons or those convicted of domestic violence from owning guns
- Strengthening gun storage education and regulation
- Raising the age limit for gun purchases
- Ending immunity and subsidies for firearms companies
- Offering greater support for the creation of healthy schools
- Supporting red flag laws to temporarily restrict gun access to those deemed a threat to themselves or others
Hold your officials accountable. Let them know you’ll be following their future legislative decisions and that your vote depends on their actions.
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Support healthy schools
While educators and school officials are not responsible for school shootings, they are a crucial link in early prevention efforts that foster emotional and mental well-being. Schools that create inclusive communities can help prevent school shootings, and schools that have actively involved parents and the support of their local community are in a better position to make sure students are being served.
- Listen to those who know schools best. Request a meeting with your principal or your child’s teachers to learn their take on how to foster healthy schools. The people who spend their days in the halls and classrooms likely know what students need to be supported and successful.
- Find opportunities to educate others. Host a salon-style event or seminar where you invite an expert on preventing school shootings and promoting healthy schools to inform parents about what it takes to get the job done.
- Let your voice be heard. Attend School Board or Town Committee meetings, learn about what’s being done or is in the works, and respectfully advocate on behalf of an agenda that supports inclusive communities and healthy students.
Remember: Work done in partnership with others is most likely to succeed. Once you have buy-in from various stakeholders in the school and local community, here are some great strategic goals to work toward for your local schools.
- Establish partnerships between schools and mental health providers to provide students with a continuum of preventative care.
- Push for greater investment in funding for counselors and mental health professionals in schools.
- Develop a trusted system of communication between students, teachers, administrators, and parents, like the recognized partnership in Pennsylvania’s Radnor Township School District. The District has established strong relationships with local residents, businesses, and law enforcement, encourages students and school officials to get involved with local extracurricular activities, and staff and security guards know students by name and face.
- Enact initiatives that promote inclusion and prevent social isolation and loneliness.
- Train teachers and students to identify at-risk behavior and intervene before troubled students act out.
- Implement bullying prevention and social-emotional well-being programs that demonstrate to students “that they matter” and that there are adults present they can turn to for support. Students trust adults who regularly communicate with and listen to them and take a genuine interest in their interests and well-being.
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Have difficult conversations
While it often seems that people are on opposite sides of the gun control debate, studies show that a vast majority of Americans actually support some measure of gun violence prevention, including universal background checks and red flag laws. By finding the places we can agree, we can make progress, says psychologist Jeff R. Temple, PhD, John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Community Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and the founding director of the Center for Violence Prevention. It’s also important to remember, he says, that at the end of the day, “nobody on either side of the issue wants to see innocent people, especially children, killed.”
Engage with family, friends, and neighbors, or seek out organizations like Braver Angels, which brings together people in workshops and structured 1:1 conversations to help them listen to one another, and Essential Partners, which facilitates dialogue training. The key is to keep conversations civil, empathetic, and productive—three things that are sorely lacking in many conversations today.
Katie Hyten, co–executive director at Essential Partners, recommends five ground rules for engaging in challenging conversations:
- Don’t simply try to convince the other person that you’re right. Productive conversations should deepen your understanding of what the other person thinks and what you can do together to create a safer community.
- Speak from your own perspective. Engaging in deep debates on policy can be difficult. Keep your conversation personal, and convey your own life experiences to help others better understand your point of view.
- Don’t be afraid to take a break…as long as you agree to come back. If your heart rate goes up, your face flushes, or your body goes rigid, take a break. In that moment, your body isn’t focused on empathy or understanding. Grab a cup of tea, go for a walk, or do some journaling, and then come back to the conversation when you’re ready.
- Set ground rules for group conversations. Though it may not feel natural, setting some guidelines can structure your conversation for success. For example, agree that each person will have an opportunity to speak once before others respond a second or third time.
- Be intentional in your framing. Hyten has found that even using the word “firearms” instead of “guns” can change the outcome of a conversation. Be thoughtful in the terminology you use, so you don’t provoke a defensive response or an “us vs. them” mentality.
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Learn to identify a potential threat
While national databases and federal background checks can do much to prevent future school shootings, those closest to a potential shooter may recognize signs of danger long before federal safeguards identify the threat. There has been much research done on school shooters and how to identify them, and while this isn’t an exact science by any means, some of the commonalities include:
- Early-life exposure to trauma and violence
- A specific point of crisis in the weeks leading up to the shooting
- Acknowledgement that they are in crisis, either via conversations or changes in behavior
- An obsession with or admiration of school shooters
- Access to firearms
At the same time, notes Temple, there is no single profile of a school shooter. Some shooters did well academically; others did poorly. Some came from stable home environments; others did not. And there are countless students who have experienced a recent loss, bullying, or suicidal thoughts but have not resorted to gun violence. That’s why he recommends focusing efforts on delivering “universal programs, healthy relationships curricula, and socio-emotional learning [to all students]. Not only have these programs been shown to prevent violence, but they also result in happier and healthier kids.”
Learn to address a potential threat
The first step: Listen to what kids are telling you. “Shooters often share their violent ideas or intentions with other students,” says Temple. “My strong suggestion is to take them seriously. Even if you think they are just kidding or will never go through with it, treat it as a cry for help. Best-case scenario, you prevent a school shooting. Worst-case scenario, the person gets the help they need.”
If you find yourself in that position, here’s how to do just that:
- Connect the person in crisis to appropriate mental health services in your community. Another option: Email a tip to Sandy Hook Promise, which has an anonymous, nationwide reporting system that anyone can access.
- If the person has access to firearms, contact the authorities. Depending on where you live and whether your state has a red flag law, you may be able to file a petition in the court to have that person’s weapons temporarily removed.
- Engage schools, teachers, and other stakeholders in conversations on evidence-based violence intervention programs, like those outlined at Everytown for Gun Safety.
Once the immediate crisis has been dealt with, you can also encourage schools and parent groups to learn how to respond when someone articulates a threat—whether at home, at school, or in social settings.
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Keep the conversation going
Reactions to school shootings often follow the news cycle, meaning they’re front page news one day and buried the next. Successfully preventing school shootings requires that the conversation not just occur immediately following an incident but that it is consistently at the forefront of our national agenda. Here’s how you can support these efforts in your own circles of influence.
- Share insightful perspectives on social media and with family and friends.
- Avoid inflammatory memes, and instead share accurate information on gun violence and school shootings from reputable sources, such as the Pew Research Center and Gun Violence Archive stories.
- Gather a group to watch recorded webinars from gun-prevention experts. Start with these webinars from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, or this panel from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Prevention Science Program.
- Promote your own efforts. Just as we’re more likely to read a book, watch a movie, or check out a new restaurant if it comes recommended by a friend, we’re more likely to connect with an issue or organization if we know it’s important to someone who’s important to us. If you donate to or volunteer with a gun-prevention organization or lobby your legislators, tell friends and family about it and invite others to join in your work.
- American Journal of Public Health: “The Effect of Large-Capacity Magazine Bans on High-Fatality Mass Shootings, 1990–2017”
- NPR: “Research shows policies that may help prevent mass shootings—and some that don’t”
- National Education Association: “How to Become One of the Safest School Districts in the Nation”
- Brookings Institute: “School shootings: What we know about them, and what we can do to prevent them”
- National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments: “Emergency Readiness and Management”
- Jeff R. Temple, PhD, John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Community Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and the founding director of the Center for Violence Prevention
- Katie Hyten, co–executive director at Essential Partners
- Pew Research: “Red Flag Laws Are Saving Lives. They Could Save More.”
- Pew Research: “Key facts about Americans and guns”