After A Year Without Mass School Shootings, Experts Sound The Alarm About A ‘Return To Normal’

After A Year Without Mass School Shootings, Experts Sound the Alarm About a ‘Return to Normal’

As the pandemic swept across the nation, students were removed from their classrooms and confined to their homes. This raised concerns about the potential negative impact on their mental well-being and the risk of widespread learning loss. However, there was an unexpected positive outcome: For an entire year, there were no mass school shootings.

The absence of such incidents was not limited to schools alone. According to data from The Violence Project, a nonprofit research center focused on preventing mass shootings, there were no mass shootings in public spaces during the pandemic, at least until now. The organization defines "active shootings" as incidents in which four or more individuals are killed in a public location, such as a school, and are not linked to felonies like armed robbery. However, it is important to note that fatal shootings, including those on school campuses, did not entirely cease. In fact, firearm fatalities surged in the United States in 2020.

In the wake of recent back-to-back mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia as communities begin to reopen, experts in school safety are urging educators to recognize the potential for violent outbursts as students return to classrooms. Jillian Peterson, a forensic psychologist and co-founder of The Violence Project, states that routine mass shootings have sadly become a part of reality in the United States.

"We have somewhat forgotten about it," expressed Peterson, who is also an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University. "There is a desperate desire to return to normalcy, but our normal in the United States includes numerous horrific mass shootings."

However, Peterson emphasizes that such violence is not inevitable and stresses the importance of proactive measures by school leaders to prevent deadly situations. She suggests that there are actions that can be taken to address this issue, and now is the time to start implementing them.

The recent mass shootings have once again sparked a partisan debate over gun control measures in Washington, despite Democrats holding a majority in Congress and controlling the White House. Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, released a statement urging lawmakers at all levels to swiftly act in order to protect communities and schools from gun violence.

Expressing her concerns about students returning to classrooms, she stated, "To say that I am worried is an understatement. Only in America do we have such unrestricted access to guns, and only in America do we witness 100 deaths and 230 injuries caused by guns each day."

President Joe Biden, who has a long history of advocating for stricter gun regulations, including a previous ban on assault rifles, campaigned on promises of holding gun manufacturers accountable and removing weapons of war from the streets. In the aftermath of the recent shootings, he has pushed for expanded background checks on gun sales and contemplated issuing executive orders on gun control. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, has also announced plans to introduce a federal "red flag" law, similar to existing policies in over half of the states, which would allow authorities to seize firearms from individuals considered a threat to themselves or others. This proposal tends to garner bipartisan support.

However, during his first press conference as president, Biden made it clear that heightened gun regulations are not currently high on his priority list. He acknowledged the importance of timing when it comes to implementing policies, stating that successful presidents understand the art of timing. On the other hand, Republican lawmakers have already voiced their opposition to new gun control measures. The National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action released a statement calling the gun control bills in Washington a "transparent attempt" to infringe on the rights of law-abiding Americans while claiming to address the issue of violence in the country.

Although school shootings continue to play a central role in the contentious gun-control debate, it is important to note that these tragedies remain statistically rare. In fact, campuses have become safer in recent years.

Seo Yoon (Yoonie) Yang

"Students are not satisfied with thoughts and prayers," stated Yang, a member of the Students Demand Action National Advisory Board. "We are demanding concrete action."

In 2013, then-Vice President Joe Biden addressed a conference on gun violence in Danbury, Connecticut, following the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. President Barack Obama had appointed Biden to lead a task force on gun control, resulting in a series of executive actions but no legislative success in the Senate. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Creating a more inclusive movement

Peterson provided a straightforward explanation for the absence of public mass shootings during the pandemic. Since most schools and businesses were closed, she explained that "the opportunity simply wasn’t there" as people avoided large gatherings.

However, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there was a significant increase in gun violence in 2020, resulting in over 43,500 deaths, including 24,000 suicides. In 2020, more than 5,000 individuals aged 17 and younger suffered injuries or death related to firearms, the highest number since 2014, when the archive began tracking such incidents. Communities of color were disproportionately affected by gun violence, with incidents ranging from domestic disputes and gang violence to robberies.

Researchers theorized that the surge in gun violence in 2020 may have been influenced by social issues exacerbated by the pandemic, such as unemployment, economic uncertainty, heightened anxiety and depression, social isolation, and increased firearm sales. While the majority of firearm incidents recorded by the archive did not result in death, Peterson noted that most incidents resulting in four or more deaths were due to domestic violence.

The impact of the pandemic on the mental well-being of young people has raised concerns among school safety experts as children return to school. According to a 2018 report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, active shooters do not share identifiable characteristics based on demographics alone. Only a quarter of shooters in the study had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness. However, many of them experienced various life stressors, including financial strain, conflicts at school, and behavioral health issues like depression and anxiety. Additionally, they often disclosed their plans in advance to those around them, providing an opportunity for intervention by officials.

These factors may have played a role in recent shootings, such as those at spas in the Atlanta area, resulting in eight deaths, and the mass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, resulting in 10 fatalities. The suspect in the Boulder attack, a 21-year-old, may have been dealing with mental illness and reportedly became "anti-social" due to bullying related to Islamophobia during high school, according to his brother. In 2017, when he was a high school student, the suspected gunman was arrested and pleaded guilty to third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, for attacking a classmate in a classroom. (Nicole Craine/Getty Images)

Furthermore, the shootings in Georgia, which led to the deaths of six Asian women, have raised concerns that they are part of a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic. The 21-year-old suspect claimed that the attack was motivated by a sex addiction rather than racism.

Yang, who is of Asian American descent, expressed her devastation over the tragedy in Atlanta, emphasizing that it occurred just a few hours away from her residence. She also shared her personal experiences of facing anti-Asian harassment both at school and online.

The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes leading to the deaths of many individuals in our community has been incredibly difficult for me to comprehend, but unfortunately, not entirely surprising," she said. Considering the increased incidents of anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S., Yang emphasized the importance of ensuring students’ safety from harassment in educational environments.

"When discrimination and prejudice infiltrate our schools, we create an environment where students are no longer focused primarily on their education when they enter school."

Related: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene endorsed conspiracy theories about the Parkland shooting. A civics teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas turned it into a lesson.

Similar to the pandemic itself, gun violence in the past year has disproportionately impacted communities of color. Recognizing this reality, the group March For Our Lives aims to address this disparity three years after their advocacy sparked a national movement for stricter gun laws following the Parkland shooting. Through a mutual aid initiative, the group plans to distribute nearly $500,000 to activists of color working to combat gun violence in their communities. In a news release on March 18, the group acknowledged that communities of color bear the brunt of gun violence but have not received the same level of resources and support as white organizations.

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, along with other young victims of gun violence, united on stage during the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. on March 24, 2018. This powerful demonstration against gun violence brought together hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, including students, teachers, and parents, who gathered to show their support for stricter gun control laws in the wake of the tragic mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, which claimed the lives of 17 individuals.

As the issue of gun control continues to play out on the national stage, experts in campus safety emphasize the importance of taking concrete steps to ensure a safe return to in-person learning. Brandon Stratford, the deputy director of education research at the nonprofit organization Child Trends, highlights the positive aspect that emerged from the pandemic’s disruptive impact on schools: a newfound recognition of the critical role educators play in fostering the mental well-being of young people.

Stratford asserts that nowadays, it is hard to find anyone who would deny that mental health and social-emotional wellness fall within the purview of schools. He emphasizes the need for thoughtful implementation of mental health and social-emotional support systems in educational institutions.

Many states have incorporated strategies into their school reopening plans to help students manage their emotions and cope with the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Kenneth Trump, a consultant who advises school districts on emergency planning, shares a different perspective. He believes that many school leaders have focused primarily on COVID-related concerns, neglecting to update their traditional emergency preparedness guidelines. He expresses concern that this tunnel vision could leave educators vulnerable and ill-prepared to handle confrontations, threats, and even violence as students return to school. Trump emphasizes that the mental health implications of COVID-19 may manifest behaviorally once students are back in the classroom.

While the pandemic has not seen mass school shootings resulting in multiple fatalities, there have been several attacks on school campuses. One such incident occurred on March 1 at a middle school in Arkansas, leading to the tragic death of a 15-year-old boy. Officials describe the shooting as a targeted attack, carried out by another student in a school hallway.

Jayla Hemphill, a 17-year-old student from Denver and a volunteer for Students Demand Action, expresses frustration over the recurring nature of these issues, especially in light of the recent shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, which happened close to her home. Hemphill’s activism for racial equity and gun control was sparked by the killings of Trayvon Martin and the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. She became acutely aware that as a black child, the potential for being shot on the street exists without the assurance of justice.

Hemphill believes it is crucial for the Biden administration to address gun control as a public health issue amidst the ongoing pandemic. However, she acknowledges that partisan divisions in Washington make it challenging to generate concrete and actionable solutions to reduce the occurrence of school shootings. She believes her school could prioritize mental health to ensure the well-being and safety of students. Hemphill suggests that increasing accessibility to counselors and psychologists would be beneficial, as these resources are currently limited. She emphasizes the importance of supporting students who struggle with their mental health as the first step towards prevention.

To support such initiatives, a significant amount of federal funding could be available. The American Rescue Plan, enacted by President Biden in response to the pandemic, allocates $126 billion to schools. This funding includes provisions that can be utilized to hire more school counselors and enhance mental and social-emotional support systems for students.

She explained that schools with an armed officer had three times the number of casualties compared to schools without one. The presence of a guard may not be an effective deterrent, as many shooters have the intention of sacrificing their own lives during the attack.

Instead of focusing on fortifying schools, she suggested that districts establish "crisis response teams" to provide assistance to young individuals experiencing crises, in order to prevent them from resorting to violence. These efforts, along with campaigns promoting safe firearm storage to prevent children from accessing them, could potentially be more impactful than strict background checks. It is worth noting that historical data shows that most school shooters were not of legal age to purchase firearms, and instead obtained them from their own parents or relatives.

She emphasized that there is no need for legislative action to implement these measures, as schools can take the initiative themselves.


  • cameronmarshall

    I'm an educational bloger and teacher. I've been writing for about a year, and I'm currently working on my first book. I'm a self-taught teacher and blogger, and I love helping others learn how to be successful in life.

cameronmarshall Written by:

I'm an educational bloger and teacher. I've been writing for about a year, and I'm currently working on my first book. I'm a self-taught teacher and blogger, and I love helping others learn how to be successful in life.

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