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Responses to school shootings should be based on the level of risk, not the level of fear

The fear of school shootings is rampant, and understandable, but this is not an epidemic. We can make schools safer without turning them into armed fortresses.

The rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. includes landscaping that limits outside access to schools.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s horrific shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, emotions are raw and fears are running high. As the nation attempts to make sense of what took place, it is important to provide some reassurance to anxious students, parents, and school personnel that, despite the tragic loss of life in a fourth grade classroom, the risk of a deadly school shooting remains low.

Since 2013, a total of 77 students in grades K-12 have been killed in 11 school mass shootings, each involving at least one student fatality and four or more gunshot victims overall, based on my analysis of a school shooting database compiled by the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. Adding to these casualties, another 17 students whose shooting deaths were not part of a mass shooting, and the annual averages stands at 10 students killed.


Every one of these assaults caused immense pain to the families who lost a child and to the communities that endured senseless tragedy. Yet the risk of such fatalities at school is actually low. By my calculations, with more than 50 million school children in America, the likelihood is about 1 in 5 million that a child will be killed by an armed assailant at school in any given year. While recognizing that school shootings tend to have a ripple effect extending well beyond those directly impacted, there are many greater perils that children confront in their daily lives. For example, about 400 children perish each year in pool drownings. Perhaps we need more lifeguards at pools rather than armed guards at schools.

Notwithstanding the handful of devastating school shootings that have shaken the nation and frightened parents to their core, schools are safe. Schools provide students with structure and supervision that they don’t necessarily have when not in school. Indeed, their risk of gun violence is far greater away from school — on city streets and, for some, at home.


It is also the case that, notwithstanding a handful of high-profile incidents over the past few years, fatal attacks in schools have generally not increased over the past couple of decades. In fact, there were more fatal school shootings in the 1990s, including the early 1990s, when gang conflicts often spilled over into school halls.

School shootings are not an epidemic, although fear of school shootings is certainly rampant. I am not suggesting that we do nothing besides worry and grieve for the victims. To the contrary, there are reasonable and measured steps that can help, as opposed to strategies that are well out of proportion with the risk and have significant downsides.

For example, the type of aggressive and even unannounced active-shooter drills that schools undertake, often by state mandate, can be exceptionally traumatizing for children. These exercises should be toned down or even replaced by simply talking to students about safety. Also, drills, along with various visible security measures, such as metal detectors and security cameras, send a message to children that they are truly in danger: The bad guy is gunning for them.

It is far more desirable to invest in unobtrusive security tactics, including landscaping that limits outside access to schools (as in the rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School) and internal design features (e.g., keeping hallways clear of obstacles in escape routes and using bullet-resistant glass) that reduce vulnerability. These protect children without alarming them.


And we should abandon the idea of arming teachers, especially when they are ill-prepared to deal with a high-pressure, surprise encounters that are nothing like target practice at a shooting range. For teachers, marksmanship should be about A’s and B’s, not guns and ammo.

As for tighter gun restrictions, which I fully support, they are needed to deal with the thousands upon thousands of gun homicides that occur in the streets and homes of America every year. Ironically, although often proposed in the wake of a deadly massacre, various gun control measures will only have a marginal effect on preventing mass shootings (except for large capacity magazine bans that tend to reduce the number of casualties). Nearly two-thirds of public mass shooters acquire their guns legally, such as the Uvalde gunman did days after his 18th birthday, and others who were prohibited based on a criminal or psychiatric history still had many other avenues to acquire them. These assailants are generally very determined and motivated to find a weapon of mass murder destruction.

America is reeling in the wake of the massacre at the Robb Elementary School with so many young lives tragically ended. We need to respond, but in a deliberate way so as to make schools safe without turning them into armed fortresses and, in the process, unnecessarily scaring children and their parents.


James Alan Fox is a professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University and coauthor of “Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.” Follow him on Twitter @jamesalanfox.