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Demands and solutions: local opportunities to reduce violence in schools

Staff writer Joonu Coste addresses proposals by Parkland shooting survivors to end school shootings and presents local opportunities for change.

Image: "Kindergarten students participate in a school lockdown drill in Oahu, Hawaii in 2003." Phil Mislinski/Getty Images, (Courtesy of Google Images)

Author’s Note:

Part 1 explored the data of mass school shootings in the context of overall gun violence in America.  Part 2 considers the Manifesto written by the Parkland High School Editorial Staff of the Eagle Eye, as published by The Guardian US, with a focus on how the demands put forward by the students match up with available data and context in North Carolina. 

This piece focuses on actions that can be undertaken within the scope of current state and local laws by creating consensus at the level of local school boards and within current state agency discretion. Therefore, this article will not discuss firearms. North Carolina law requires statewide uniformity of local gun regulations, and the “entire field of regulation of firearms is preempted from regulation by local governments” with little exception. These laws regulate firearms on educational properties generally, in K-12 schools specifically, as well as the sale of firearms statewide.  Specific changes to state law is outside the scope of this article but may be taken up at a later date as it is certainly worthy of analysis given the current dialogue related to school safety.

 

To say the topic of gun violence in school is complicated is an understatement. The complexity and nuances needed to create a multi-pronged approach is impossible to encapsulate in a soundbite, meme, or rhetorical catchphrase. The good news is that schools are safer now for students than they have been since the 1990’s. The number of violent incidents in schools went down last year here in North Carolina.

The bad news is that they happen at all. The bad news is that in order to eliminate mass school shootings and other incidents of violence at school, the public will need to rethink what it thinks it already knows with respect to violence in schools and gun violence in America.  Statisticians conducted an in-depth study and analysis of both gun violence in America, and many proposed solutions. The best ideas were narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims, and were not simply broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns.  One of the statisticians wrote in an op-ed:

“A reduction in gun deaths is most likely to come from finding smaller chances for victories and expanding those solutions as much as possible. We save lives by focusing on a range of tactics to protect the different kinds of potential victims and reforming potential killers, not from sweeping bans focused on the guns themselves.”

Who Attacks Schools and How Do They Carry Out the Attack?

The United States Secret Service concluded in 2004 that attackers “varied considerably in demographic, background, and other characteristics” and was unable to develop a profile of a “school shooter.” The Secret Service did find that school shooters shared certain characteristics:

  • All attacks were committed by males;
  • 98% experienced or perceived a major loss prior to the attack;
  • 95% were current students at the school;
  • 81% attacked alone;
  • 78% had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts prior to their attack;
  • 73% had a grievance against their targets;
  • 71% felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident; and
  • More than half of attacks occurred during the school day

A Need for Better Data

Parkland students have proposed allowing the CDC to make recommendations regarding gun reform. In fact, pushing for state and local agencies to assess gun violence by utilizing a combination of private and public funding may be successful in generating better state and local data that can be used to combat firearm-related violence.

While it is true that in 1996 Congress prohibited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) from funding public-health research addressing issues related to firearms and that this ban has been renewed periodically since then, and continues to this day, this does not prevent federal or state agencies from studying gun violence.

At the federal level in 2013, Priorities For Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence was published by the Committee on Priorities for a Public Health Research Agenda to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence.  This publication summarized work completed  in compliance with 23 Executive Orders issued by President Obama directing federal agencies to “to improve knowledge of the causes of firearm violence, the interventions that might prevent it, and strategies to minimize its public health burden.”

In response, “the Institute of Medicine, in collaboration with the National Research Council, convene[d] a committee of experts to develop a potential research agenda focusing on the public health aspects of firearm-related violence—its causes, approaches to interventions that could prevent it, and strategies to minimize its health burden.” A 110-page report was compiled that summarized the results the committee’s findings.

The summary concluded by making two points.  First, inquiry must begin with the proper questions. The report sets forth the critical questions that serve as a starting point for understanding and combating gun violence as a public health concern. These questions can be addressed by any equipped organization.  Second, “[n]o single agency or research strategy can provide all the answers.”  This last point is critical. Finding solutions to gun violence need an all-hands-on-deck coordinated approach to be successful.  This approach needs to take into account the role of government at all levels.

Mental Heath as an issue of Public Health and Public Safety

Parkland students have also proposed dedicating more funds to mental health research and professionals. In reality, the demand for more research for mental health issues must be coupled with demand to meet the critical needs of those currently underserved.

It is critically important to keep two things in mind when making a connection between mental health and gun violence in schools. First, people who live with mental illness are more likely to become victims of violence than to be violent toward others. Second, the largest category of gun violence victims are those who die by suicide. They make up 2/3 of all gun-related deaths in the US, more than 85% of which are males and half of those are men over the age of 45 years.

In the context of the use of guns by students, the CDC counted 123 instances of school-related homicides and suicide between July of 1992 and June of 1999, of which 26.8% of the shooters committed suicide.  The United States Secret Service found that  98% experienced a major loss before the attack and 78% had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts prior to the attack, a logical place to invest is in increasing availability of community-based mental health services.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”) oversees all mental health care services, substance abuse recovery services, and services for individual with developmental disabilities in the state. The NC DHHS Department of Health Service Regulation ensures compliance with all state and federal laws.  Many of North Carolina’s rural counties are experiencing health care shortages, including a shortage in mental health services.  For many rural citizens, the only source of health care is found in emergency rooms. This makes citizens with mental health needs particularly vulnerable.  “A void in mental health providers now qualifies 58 of North Carolina’s 100 counties as Health Professional Shortage Areas, according to federal guidelines.”

Emergency rooms are not equipped to care for individuals with mental health needs.  By not addressing the needs when they arise, individuals are more likely to experience a mental health crisis, requiring involuntary commitment and/or inpatient treatment.  Creating clinics that provide treatment for youth who are experiencing mental health crises is one important resource that should be considered with respect to reducing violence in schools. In January, the first of such a center opened in Charlotte in January 2018.  Other innovations, such as Telepsychiatry, are being explored to address the shortage of mental health professionals in North Carolina.

School Security

Parkland school shooting survivors have proposed increased funding for school security. Many schools have successfully improved structural security measures and have already added security procedures; however, the role of school resource officers remains controversial and their effectiveness in preventing school violence remains unproven.

As previously stated, more than half of attacks occurred during the school day. Over the last several years, funds have been made available for schools nationwide to increase security on campuses. After the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, schools across the country began holding active shooter drills—a reality that many current high schoolers have never lived without.  In 2014, 88% of public schools had a written “active shooter” plan and 70%of schools had drilled students on the use of the plan. After 1999, many schools installed metal detectors and required ID cards for entry.

By 2014, the percentage of schools which controlled access to school buildings increased from 75% to 93%. Between 1999 and 2014, the percentage of public schools using security cameras increased from 19% to 75%. In 2015, students reported that the three most commonly observed safety and security measures were: a written code of student conduct; visitors being required to sign in; and the presence of non-security school staff and other adults supervising the hallways.

School resource officers (“SROs”) work at schools pursuant to memorandums of understanding between local school districts and law enforcement that specify duties and training requirements.  As recently stated by editor Robby Soave in the blog “Hit & Run,” of libertarian magazine Reason:

Fear of mass shootings was a main driver of increased demand for SROs. Between 1999—the year Columbine happened—and 2005, the federal Department of Justice gave schools $750 million to hire cops. There’s scant evidence that this spending binge made schools any safer, since the school crime rate had already been trending downward (it fell by half between 1992 and 2002, consistent with the overall crime drop in the U.S. during the latter half of the 1990s).  It’s tough to imagine that hiring even more officers to patrol schools would further reduce a form of crime that’s already fairly rare.

In addition to questionable evidence of improving school safety, when security personnel are in schools specifically for security purposes, issues of student discipline, student due process, and juvenile justice are implicated and things can quickly get complicated.  Successful SRO programs will depend on how the school uses the SROs, the training the SROs undergo, and the temperament of the individual SRO.  Local schools in Wake County have had mixed results with SROs in the past few years, leaving many parents, especially parents of students of color, dissatisfied and concerned with the SRO program as a whole.

Conflict Resolution and Efforts to Reduce Bullying

Evidence shows that making efforts to support conflict resolution between students, as well as to support students who are experiencing economic distress, will contribute to a reduction in violence at school. Since 95% of school attackers were current students at the school they attacked, assessing school policies, procedures, programs, and services for opportunities to prevent violence merits attention.

It has been established that 73% of attackers had a grievance against their targets and 71% felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident.  Guidance counselors have traditionally been on the frontlines of mediating interpersonal conflicts at school; however, right now, the U.S. is facing a desperate shortage of guidance counselors.  “In 2014-15, the student-to-school counselor ratio was 482-to-1, according to the American School Counselor Association, nearly twice the organization’s recommended ratio” of 250-to-1.  In North Carolina, the ratio was 378-to-1.

Furthermore, there is currently no federal law against bullying in schools.  Under federal law, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has historically held the position that individual instances of bullying may be prosecuted under existing anti-discrimination laws as appropriate;  however, it should be noted that all 50 states have passed some form of anti-bullying legislation.  The North Carolina School Violence Prevention Act was passed in 2013.

In North Carolina, the General Assembly took a strong stand against bullying and harassment, declaring that no student or school employee “shall be subjected to bullying or harassing behavior by school employees or students.” The Act also defined bullying or harassing behavior broadly, as:

[A]ny pattern of gestures or written, electronic, or verbal communications, or any physical act or any threatening communication, that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function, or on a school bus, and that:

(1) Places a student or school employee in actual and reasonable fear of harm to his or her person or damage to his or her property; or (2)  Creates or is certain to create a hostile environment by substantially interfering with or impairing a student’s educational performance, opportunities, or benefits. For purposes of this section, “hostile environment” means that the victim subjectively views the conduct as bullying or harassing behavior and the conduct is objectively severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would agree that it is bullying or harassing behavior.

Furthermore, North Carolina law requires that “each local school administrative unit adopt a policy prohibiting bullying or harassing behavior.”  The policy shall contain, at a minimum, the following components:

  1. A statement prohibiting bullying or harassing behavior;
  2. A definition of bullying or harassing behavior no less inclusive than that set forth in this Article;
  3. A description of the type of behavior expected for each student and school employee;
  4. Consequences and appropriate remedial action for a person who commits an act of bullying or harassment;
  5. A procedure for reporting an act of bullying or harassment, including a provision that permits a person to report such an act anonymously. This shall not be construed to permit formal disciplinary action solely on the basis of an anonymous report;
  6. A procedure for prompt investigation of reports of serious violations and complaints of any act of bullying or harassment, identifying either the principal or the principal’s designee as the person responsible for the investigation;
  7. A statement that prohibits reprisal or retaliation against any person who reports an act of bullying or harassment, and the consequence and appropriate remedial action for a person who engages in reprisal or retaliation; and
  8. A statement of how the policy is to be disseminated and publicized, including notice that the policy applies to participation in school-sponsored functions.

Residents who are concerned about bullying at local schools can look up their local school board policies, as well as the policies of individual schools;  For example, here is Wake County Public School’s information on bullying prevention.

Any concerned resident can become involved with bullying prevention, and by extension, school shooting prevention, by reading and understanding the local policy; determining whether that policy might be improved upon; seeking to understand whether the policy is being implemented at all; and even getting involved at the local level to press for necessary changes.

Student Discipline

There have been many calls since the Parkland school shooting to evaluate student discipline and student due process procedures.  WCPSS recently created an office of Student Due Process and hired an experienced school administrator to oversee disciplinary appeals hearings, compliance with the student code of conduct, and local policies concerning disciplinary discretion. The Director works with school administrators to ensure proper consideration is given to the many disciplinary decisions rendered in all schools in the WCPSS on a daily basis.

“They should be funding Departments of Restorative Justice!”

Within the individual school’s discretion for implementing student discipline programs and preventing violence is whether to utilize a restorative justice model for conflict resolution.  “Restorative justice empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own and in small groups.  Essentially, the idea is to bring students together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions, and air their grievances.”

Increasingly, schools have been implementing restorative justice practices and these “programs have helped strengthen campus communities, prevent bullying, and reduce student conflicts. And the benefits are clear: early-adopting districts have seen drastic reductions in suspension and expulsion rates, and students say they are happier and feel safer.” Restorative justice programs are also highly adaptable to a specific school setting.  The programs can vary, but are generally based on bringing conflicting students together, and supporting them as the students talk through their conflicts, reconcile, and reintegrate into the school community.

In North Carolina, Wake County Public School System (“WCPSS”) has also established “Equity Initiatives” through the Office of Equity Affairs.  With concern over equity in school discipline, restorative justice is a tool by which WCPSS empowering students “to take responsibility, resolve conflicts, repair harm, and successfully rejoin the school community.” One of its community partners is the Campbell Law Restorative Justice Clinic, which “uses mediation to help students resolve conflicts with one another to foster collaborative healing, rather than seeking punishment for wrongdoings.” 

“They should be investing in mentor programs and jobs!”

Often, the root of students’ conflict at school arises from conditions and relationships outside of school.  Economic distress is a factor often identified during restorative justice circles and mediation sessions, and is closely correlated to the prevalence of school shootings.   As noted in an article featured in Northwestern University’s Nature Human Behaviour, research has shown that “shootings rise and fall along with economic indicators like unemployment and foreclosure rates.”  The relationship holds up with “statistical rigor” regardless of what metric of economic health is analyzed.

The team of researchers began by compiling a list of school shootings.  First, the team tracked down the “six existing lists of shootings compiled by media outlets, advocacy groups, and other academics.”  The team then agreed on three criteria that would determine which event should truly be considered “school shootings”—“the incident must involve a gun being discharged, must involve students or school staff in some way, and must take place on the premises of a school.”  Of incidents that met criteria, researchers identified two major periods of elevated violence in 1992–1994 and 2007–2013—two periods which featured major economic downturn.

Next, researchers charted national unemployment levels alongside school shooting counts, which revealed a “striking parallel—shootings and unemployment seemed to rise and fall in sync.”  Multiple statistical tests confirmed the link. Researchers tested this apparent statistical trend against multiple economic indicators and different geographical regions and the statistical correlation persisted. They substituted consumer confidence and foreclosure rates for unemployment, broke the continental U.S. into eight regions, and tested the unemployment correlation for each one. Then they did the same thing for six individual cities. The lead author of the paper stated, “What we found [regarding school shootings and unemployment rates] was that it was extremely significantly related.”

Economic distress can impact kids in many different ways. But this economic distress can be combatted in various ways, such as: supporting children in foster care to attend school; starting food pantries at school to help prevent students from going hungry;  helping to provide kids with adequate clothing by setting up school clothing closets; setting up shower and laundry facilities for homeless youth;  connecting kids with apprenticeships; or creating pathways for kids to college through early college programs. By creating an environment that cares for every student, violence rates in schools can decrease overall, making the chances of a mass shooting occurring even more remote.

Joonu Coste
About Joonu Coste (3 Articles)
Joonu-Noel Coste is a second year student at Campbell Law and currently serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Joonu has loved living in the Raleigh area for the last 5 years. Born and raised in New Hampshire, she graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Crop and Soil Science with a concentration in Biochemistry. After several years as a Project Officer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency she spent several years homeschooling three children, two of whom have disabilities. Her experience as a mother to children with disabilities inspired her to become a lawyer in order to advocate for underserved populations. She is very interested in the areas of disability law, education law, and juvenile justice. Last summer she was an intern at Disability Rights North Carolina. This past fall she was an extern at the Wake County Superior Court Clerk’s Office of Special Proceedings and is currently an intern with the North Carolina Community College System’s General Counsel. This summer she will be a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Intern for Legal Aid of North Carolina. She competes for Campbell’s National Moot Court Team and serves as a Teaching Scholar for Contracts, a Research Assistant, Vice President of the Education Law and Policy Society, and a Project Coordinator for the Pro Bono Council. Making sure that life is not all work, she enjoys spending time with family, baking, reading, and running 5k and 10k races with friends.