It’s happened again. And again. And again and again and again. On Monday, February 13, 2023, gunshots erupted at Michigan State University. Three dead, five injured. “For a generation of young Americans, mass shootings at schools or colleges once considered sanctuaries for learning have become so painfully routine that some of them have lived through more than one by their early 20s. People a few years older grew up with active shooter drills. Their younger counterparts have become repeat survivors of traumatic violence.” (nytimes.com). Michigan State students include survivors of the Sandy Hook and Oxford High shootings.
We know our youth are struggling. Mental health issues, many of which predate the pandemic, were exacerbated by it. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control warns “of an accelerating mental health crisis among adolescents, with more than 4 in 10 teens reporting that they feel ‘persistently sad or hopeless,’ and 1 in 5 saying they have contemplated suicide, according to the results of a survey published last year [washingtonpost.com].
The threat of school shootings and the shooter drills compound these anxieties. More than 100,000 American children attended a school at which a shooting took place in 2018 and 2019 alone (Cabral et al., 2021), and researchers are finding “evidence suggesting a deterioration in shooting-exposed children’s mental health” [stanford.edu]. These experiences have direct, deleterious consequences.
High school students exposed to a shooting at their school were:
- 3.7 percent at the mean less likely to graduate from high school
- 9.5 percent less likely to enroll in any college
- 17.2 percent less likely to enroll in a four-year college
- 15.3 percent less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 26
- 6.3 percent less likely to be employed
- had $2,779.84 (13.5 percent) lower average annual earnings between the ages of 24 and 26 suggesting a reduction of $115,550 (in 2018 dollars) in the present discounted value of lifetime earnings per shooting-exposed student. With approximately 50,000 children per year affected in recent years, the aggregate cost may be $5.8 billion per year in terms of lost lifetime earnings among survivors. [Ibid.].
The statistics should frighten us:
- Each day 12 children die from gun violence in America. Another 32 are shot and injured.
- Guns are the leading cause of death among American children and teens. 1 out of 10 gun deaths are age 19 or younger.2
- In fact, firearm deaths occur at a rate more than 5 times higher than drownings.3
- Since Columbine in 1999, more than 338,000 students in the U.S. have experienced gun violence at school.4
- There were more school shootings in 2022  than in any year since Columbine.
- In 2022, 34 students and adults died [sandyhookpromise.org].
It’s no wonder that our students are anxious. “Perhaps the most disturbing effects of school shootings are the feeling of on-going danger that permeates schools where they have occurred. The school’s climate and sense of community are profoundly damaged” [https://violence.chop.edu].
In a country with more guns than people (about 120 guns for every 100 Americans) [cnn.com], in a country where mass shootings and violence also occur outside school walls, our kids cannot feel safe. As of February 14, 2023, there have been 366 school shootings since Columbine [washingtonpost.com]. The Center for Homeland Defense and Security reports that in 2021 alone, there were 240 incidents in which a gun was either brandished or used in a school.
Although nearly 75% of all US school shootings in 2018 and 2019 had no fatalities, they still left students traumatized [pbs.com].
And the data excludes hundreds of incidents every year that don’t technically qualify but that still terrify and traumatize tens of thousands of children: shootings at after-school sporting events, for example, or gunshots fired just off campus. “In a country where gun violence is now the leading cause of death for kids and teens, millions of children must walk through metal detectors or run through active-shooter drills meant to prepare them for the threat of mass murder” [washingtonpost.com3].
Steven Schlozman, a Dartmouth associate professor of psychiatry, analyzed school shootings over the last five years: “We have very good data that children in proximity to frightening circumstances, such as those that trigger school lockdowns, are at risk for lasting symptoms. These include everything from worsening academic and social progression to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, post-traumatic symptomatology, and substance abuse” [dartmouth.edu]
Our youth deserve better, yet we continue to fail them by allowing politics to prevent change.
We must be more proactive in identifying and responding to potential shooters. Just look at Richneck Elementary School in New Jersey, where teachers warned administrators that a six-year-old boy was disturbed and making threats. Nothing was done until he shot his teacher with a handgun [washingtonpost.com2].
Everytown Research and Policy provides a clear blueprint for making schools and communities safer:
- “Enact and Enforce Secure Firearm Storage Laws
- Pass Extreme Risk Laws
- Raise the Age to Purchase Semi-automatic Firearms
- Require Background Checks on All Gun Sales
- Foster a Safe and Trusting School Climate
- Build a Culture of Secure Gun Storage
- Create Evidence-Based Crisis Assessment/Prevention Programs in Schools
- Implement Expert-Endorsed School Security Upgrades: Entry Control and Locks
- Initiate Trauma-Informed Emergency Planning
- Avoid Practices That Can Cause Harm and Traumatize Students” [everytownresearch.org]
So it’s up to us. We have a road map, and we need to fight for it. Write your congresspeople and push for change. It’s long overdue.