By Justine Lopez
WASHINGTON — Seventeen days after the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, a student was shot dead at STEM School Highlands Ranch in suburban Denver.
A few days earlier a despondent teen obsessed with the mass shooting traveled to Denver, purchased a gun and killed herself. Her social media posting suggested she had an apparent mental health issue.
Today school officials are still trying to figure out how to treat this epidemic of gun violence in schools ever since that tragic day in 1999 when two Columbine students took the lives of 12 students and one teacher. Is it a public health crisis or simply a Second Amendment issue where the answer is to arm more resource officers and even teachers?
Last Tuesday, it may have not even mattered because the violence continued in the suburban Denver school where there was an armed officer who did not get there in time to stop the shooting.
A male and female suspect opened fire at STEM School Highlands Ranch. Seniors Kendrick Castillo, Brendan Bialy and Joshua Jones all tackled a shooter who walked into their classroom, giving their classmates a chance to get to safety. Bialy, 18, was able to wrestle the gun away from the shooter, he said — but not before Castillo, who was 18 and just a few days away from graduation, was fatally shot.
Jones, 18, and seven other students were hospitalized, three of them with serious injuries.
Two suspects have been arrested: Devon Erickson, 18, and a juvenile whose name has not been released. News reports indicated that a parent had expressed fears to the Douglas County School District alleging that violence and drug use at STEM Academy might culminate in a mass shooting. But after writing a letter to the school principal, who then sent a letter to parents, the school district opted to sue the parent — accusing them of making defamatory statements about the school.
‘Hardening’ vs. ‘softening’ approaches
The shootings are all too familiar for many Americans and even Congress, which often tries but fails to roll out gun legislation. Instead, after Columbine’s 20th anniversary, public school district officials and politicians across the country are looking at other solutions to stop the shootings.
The drug epidemic is sometimes compared to the school shooting epidemic. The drug problem in America — once considered mostly a criminal problem — is now in some political circles viewed as a public health issue.
The same is being said about school shooters. Treat those that may be mentally ill before they turn to a gun. It’s a much softer way to handle the solution, but will it work?
That’s the question lawmakers and school officials are grappling with: Should schools employ “hardening” or “softening” safety measures? School shootings are still statistically rare in the U.S., but hardening approaches such as arming security guards are still favored among most schools compared to hiring more social workers to help identify problems before they escalate.
A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) suggested that school districts should take a softening approach to safety by focusing more on meeting staff quotas for mental health professionals.
The report, “Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff is Harming Students,” analyzed data released by the Department of Education about the number of mental health professionals and school resources officers (SRO) in schools. The ACLU report found that more than half of U.S. states do not meet suggested student-to-faculty ratios for counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists.
Even with the lack of staff, the Department of Justice (DOJ) continues to bolster programs such as the COPS Office School Violence Prevention Programs (SVPP), which prioritize target hardening tactics. Those measures include training for law enforcement, installing metal detectors and other deterrent measures.
N’yana Martin is a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter school in Washington, D.C. She is part of a student-led activist group called Pathways 2 Power. Martin said implementing more hardening strategies — such as bringing more armed guards into schools — won’t help address the root causes of violence from guns.
“That’s not really a solution to our problem,” Martin told TMN. “We’re dying outside of school and not necessarily inside of our school buildings.”
No current data exists that supports whether armed security guards in schools prevent mass shootings. By contrast, the ACLU’s analysis found that increasing a police presence can have a negative effect — notably on minority students.
“The presence of permanent school police shifts the focus from learning and supporting students to over disciplining and criminalizing them,” the report stated.
Minority students at risk
Minority students, particularly black students, are arrested at school at a disproportionately higher rate than their white peers, according to a 2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection for the U.S. Department of Education. During that school year, black students made up 15% of total school populations but accounted for 31% of arrests.
Even with this disparity, a March poll found that more than 70% of adults think that having armed security officers make schools safer. In the same poll from the Associated Press–National Opinion Research Center, nearly 50% of adults blamed school shootings on bullying and the availability of guns.
Mona Botter, a mother of three students, said that arming the security guards is not necessarily a negative thing, but sees the pros and cons of it. Her middle son, Colten Botter, is a junior at V. Sue Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, N.M. Earlier this year a student brought a gun to the campus and fired it on the anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen people were killed at the Parkland shooting. No one was hurt during the New Mexico incident.
The 16-year-old sophomore, Joshua Owen, was charged with three counts of attempted murder for the episode. Rio Rancho Public Schools opted to arm school security guards with semi-automatic pistols in response to Owen’s actions.
“I’m not adamant that we need to eliminate guns in every form or fashion. I think the bigger issue is dealing with it on a proactive level,” Botter told TMN. “Arming guards to me, yes I see sometimes it can be a proactive level, but to me, it’s more of a defense.”
For Botter, that proactive change also comes from reforming the education system.
“It starts in the home, but I think our schools have gone to worrying about test scores and they’re just not connecting. They’re becoming a number and not a human,” she said.
Owen confessed to his then-girlfriend about hearing voices over a year ago that were telling him to “shoot up the school” prior to the incident, according to authorities. The girl reported Owen’s confession to school administrators where he was later admitted to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Owen’s attorney declined to comment on any possible diagnosis.
Dave Workman, a former National Rifle Association (NRA) board member and senior editor for The Gun Magazine, said that even if softening measures are implemented, per the ACLU’s suggestion, people are still bound to slip through the cracks.
“When you have a society where freedom is valued and protected zealously, you’ve got to accept the potential that somebody is going to be a cog outside of the wheel,” Workman told TMN.
Workman said that having more school administrators to “monitor” students may lead to a more restrictive environment and also put more pressure on school staff to identify warning signs.
“That’s a lot of second guessing that we’re trying to place on the backs of school teachers and school administrators,” he said.
Division stalls legislation
Lawmakers have their own opinions about how to quell gun violence and mass school shootings, but legislation often fails to garner support from both sides.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who reintroduced his bill to expand firearm background checks in January, attributed the stonewalling to organizations like the NRA.
“It’s unfortunate that the NRA is so powerful here that we can’t get more Republican buy-in, but it’s not a partisan issue other than in one place,” Murphy told TMN.
Other lawmakers have suggested that in order to pass proper legislation to prevent future tragedies, Congress should first pass legislation that requires comprehensive data.
Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) is trying to accomplish just that by introducing a bill that would require the Surgeon General to submit an annual report to Congress about the effects of gun violence on public health.
“The surgeon general is a Republican so it’s not Republic or Democrat, red or blue, or anything like that,” Kelly said during an April press conference about the bill. “We really want the facts.”
Like most other gun-control bills that the Democratic-controlled House introduces, it is not expected to pass in the Republic-controlled Senate. Both Kelly’s and Murphy’s bills are likely going to what Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently described as the “legislative graveyard.”
An oversimplified solution?
Some researchers said that addressing solutions to mass shootings cannot simply be reduced to the two positions of mental health or firearms, according to a 2016 article written by a Northeastern University criminologist.
“Although expanded psychiatric services and various measures to restrict gun sales to dangerous individuals are limited in their ability to prevent mass shootings, these strategies may still have significant value for society as a whole, including the potential to curb ordinary gun crime,” James Alan Fox and Emma Fridel, a criminal justice doctoral candidate at Northeastern, wrote in “The Tenuous Connections Involving Mass Shootings, Mental Illness and Gun Laws. “Of course, taking any nibble out of the risk of mass murder, however small, would still be a worthy goal for the nation.”