School shootings will probably tick back up again when kids go back to the classroom, but experts say we can stop them from happening

People walk with signs against assault rifles during 'March for Our Lives', an organized demonstration to end gun violence, in downtown Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 24, 2018.
People walk with signs against assault rifles during ‘March for Our Lives’, an organized demonstration to end gun violence, in downtown Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

A 15-year-old student was injured on Monday during a shooting at a junior high school in Arkansas – marking the alarming return of such events that had stopped for nearly a year as students across the country learned virtually from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

While school shootings are relatively rare compared to other types of shootings in the United States, over the past several decades they have prompted nationwide protests and calls for stricter gun legislation.

And with the return of in-person learning, psychology and criminology experts told Insider that while school shootings could happen again, policies including threat assessment teams and stricter gun laws can prevent such events from happening altogether.

“They don’t have to be inevitable,” Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist and sociologist at Vanderbilt University, told Insider. “We haven’t always had school shootings and school shootings are the result of multiple factors over which we are not helpless if we choose not to be.”

While schools have experienced fewer shootings over the last year, shootings have still happened. The Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings in which four or more people are shot, reported about 600 shootings in the US by the end of 2020.

Fewer than 20 of those were public mass shootings – events in which more than four people are killed and were not instances of domestic violence, gang conflict, or criminal activity – according to data compiled by the Associated Press, USA Today, and the Northeastern University Mass Killing Database.

Experts suggest that one of the main reasons is simply that people stayed home in 2020. People weren’t at work, school, or out in public as often as they were pre-pandemic.

School shootings ‘reflect broader issues in society.’ Americans bought 40 million guns in 2020 alone.

And to keep those numbers down as people start going back in public after the COVID-19 pandemic, Metzl told Insider that gun laws should be at the forefront of federal policy.

“School shootings reflect the too-easy access firearms, the lack of uniform sufficient background check system, and inability to monitor firearms the way we do other potentially fatal technologies like cars,” he said. “So I think it’s important to remember that school shootings are not inevitable, and they reflect broader issues in society.”

A protestor holds a sign during a 'March For Our Lives' demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018.
A protester holds a sign during a ‘March For Our Lives’ demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Gun violence is one of the least researched causes of death in the United States, according to a 2017 study on the subject, but science has shown that polices like background checks and storage laws can help prevent gun-related tragedies.

Federal gun laws have remained unchanged during the pandemic, though President Joe Biden has urged Congress to pass a host of gun policies, including universal background checks that could help prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands.

As the United States faced a year filled with the COVID-19 pandemic, political turmoil, and civil unrest, nearly 40 million guns were purchased legally in 2020, and another 4.1 million were bought in January, according to USA Today.

“There were so many gun sales during the pandemic that even if you didn’t sell one more gun ever in this country, you would still have a major problem,” Metzl said. “There are now guns in many more homes that there were before, and so I think we need a new approach to safety.”

Threat assessment programs can help schools prevent shootings and violence

Peter Langman, a psychologist with an expertise in school shootings who runs a resource website about prevention and school safety, told Insider that prevention shouldn’t only happen at federal and state levels, but at local levels too.

“The best thing that schools can do is have what’s called a threat assessment team within their school consisting of people who are trained to investigate safety concerns,” he said.

Threat assessment training programs have been implemented at a number of schools across the US, and help school staff and students identify behavioral threats to reduce targeted violence in classrooms.

According to Schoolsafety.gov, threat assessment programs “can significantly reduce violence, including mass casualty attacks.”

Tomaya Gayton, Jada Posey and Nanyamka Lopez, all freshman at Gary Comer College Prep school pose for a portrait after Pastor John Hannah of New Life Covenant Church lead a march and pray for our lives against gun violence in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., May 19, 2018.
Tomaya Gayton, Jada Posey and Nanyamka Lopez, all freshman at Gary Comer College Prep school pose for a portrait after Pastor John Hannah of New Life Covenant Church lead a march and pray for our lives against gun violence in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., May 19, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

The programs allow students, staff, and administrators to report suspected threatening incidents anonymously to be investigated and assessed by threat assessment teams created within the school.

“Maybe sometimes [a student is] angry, but they don’t mean it literally,” Langman said of reported threats. “If these things are reported to an assessment team, then they can investigate the incident, talk to people involved, talk to any witnesses, and get a sense of if this is something to be concerned about, or if it really was a joke or someone shooting their mouth off.”

Langman said the programs are helpful in looking at the warning signs of violence and how to proceed when they’re encountered.

Jillian Peterson, a psychologist and professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, agreed that threat assessment teams can help prevent school shootings, and might also prevent further tragedies like suicide, self-harm, and other forms of violence.

“We really focus on things like safe, warm environments with strong relationships between students and adults so people feel more comfortable reporting when something’s going on with them, or when they’re concerned about a peer,” she told Insider.

One expert is concerned about the mental health of children who’ve been stuck at home since the pandemic began

Peterson said she’s concerned about the mental health of children who haven’t had in-person classes since the pandemic began, and how that will impact classrooms when in-person learning starts back up again.

“So many of the risk factors that we know about have really been exacerbated in the last year while kids have been home and isolated and feeling alone and depressed and spending more time online,” she said. “I think that’s something that we really have to be thinking proactively about as schools are reopening.”

Protestors hold signs during a 'March For Our Lives' demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018.
Protestors hold signs during a ‘March For Our Lives’ demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

For now, she said, schools should be checking in on how students are doing at home.

She said schools should be “creating spaces for kids and young adults to say when they’re not okay, and just kind of listening without judgment and knowing when it’s time to connect with more professional resources.”

“I think as much as we’re putting on learning loss, in terms of academics over the past year, we should put the same time and energy into mental health and wellness for our students coming back to school,” she said.

The experts Insider spoke with warned that there’s an element of social contagion around shootings – when one happens, other tend to happen as well.

But Peterson said schools should be focused on prevention, and local officials should be talking to communities about safe storage of firearms.

Metzl agreed, saying education is key to preventing guns from getting into the hands of students and teaching communities on how to be safe with weapons.

“I think the main point is that it’s not inevitable that we’re going to have more school shootings,” he said. “It’s a choice – what do we want to do about it?”