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Schools Aren’t Equipped to Teach and Prevent Mass Shootings

When it comes to school shootings, what’s the real issue: whether the justice system and school administrators can handle the threats so common around the country? Or is it that guns are too easily available to children?

A drawing of a gun on a chalkboard.
It’s been about two weeks since 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley opened fire at Oxford High School in Michigan and killed four classmates, and undoubtedly school teachers and administrators across the country have dealt with hundreds of threats since.

Crumbley had earlier in that fateful day exhibited behavior that could — maybe should — have been alarming enough for administrators to act, such as drawing a picture that depicted a shooter.

But when you consider that school administrators across the country are exposed to a range of student behavior that may or may not foretell violence, the whole landscape of what they could or should have done becomes a bit blurry. And knowing who will act on threats by bringing a gun to school and using it is not something schools are equipped to handle.

When Oxford High School staff met with Crumbley and his parents, they could have searched his backpack. The parents could have as well, and in fact refused to remove their son from school that day. There are reports that a school resource officer (SRO) assigned to the school helped arrest Crumbley. SROs are often placed in schools to engage students and help prevent violence, but it hasn’t been reported if the SRO was in the meeting with Crumbley, his parents and school staff.

Mo Canady, a former SRO and currently executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said there are threats across the land every day when it comes to students and guns, especially recently. “Each one of these is unique in how it developed and happened and on any given day a hundred of these circumstances, where a kid has drawn something bizarre, occurs,” Canady said.

“What is the line and what is the limit to where you can get a search warrant?" Canady asked. “And what do you do when parents say, ‘I’m not taking my kid home?’”

An SRO would have been within his or her rights to search the kid’s backpack, and the same goes for school staff.

“As an SRO, if I’ve got a school directing parents to take a child home and maybe suspect him, I’m at that point if the child is left there that I’m getting on the phone with the family court,” Canady said. “I’m getting some feedback from them in terms of can we take this child into protective custody?”

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, especially when administrators deal with threats all the time.

“The reality is, this stuff happens all the time in schools,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, “where kids say stupid things and teachers become aware of it, parents are called. Most of the time nothing happens.”

But, of course, this time was different. Now authorities and school administrators are left to sift through the facts of the case to try and figure out what could have been done differently and by whom.

“First of all, isn’t it interesting that you get the parents up to the school, you lay out the problem that’s going on and you’re asking the parents to take their child home and they refuse,” said Canady. “In 12 years as an SRO I never saw that happen. What parent doesn’t care enough to say, ‘Well, my child is in distress, I’m going to take him home or to the doctor or something?”’

A lot of the focus has been on the backpack. If only someone, an SRO if there had been one there, the parents or school staff would have checked the backpack they may have found the gun and prevented the act.

“I do think that focusing on the behavior of the school officials is probably misplaced,” Schindler said. “And I do appreciate that there are efforts to hold the parents accountable in this situation. It does appear that there was real inappropriate behavior by the parents.”

But both Schindler and Canady concluded that there is one common link to these mass killings: access to a gun.

“These situations, every one of these school shootings, the only thing they really have in common is a person with a gun shooting people,” Canady said.

“The bigger issue is we have so many guns that are easily accessible and lethal that end up in the hands of kids,” Schindler said. “So whether the school should have searched the backpack or not, why are we even in that situation where that is such a big question?”

Schindler added that whether parents should be held accountable and at what level of responsibility and whether the criminal justice system is equipped to respond to these shootings avoids the bigger issue: “That we are in a culture now where school administrators have to deal with situations and be mindful of whether guns are coming into our schools.”