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Firearms in K-12 Schools: What is the Responsibility of the Education Community?

by Sonali Rajan, Lalitha Vasudevan, Kelly Ruggles, Brande Brown & Helen Verdeli October 05, 2017

This commentary investigates the role and responsibility of schools and surrounding communities in keeping students and faculty safe from gun violence on K-12 campuses.


In 1999, one of the deadliest school shootings in American history took place in Columbine, Colorado. Since then, more than half a million Americans have been killed with guns, whether in homicides, suicides, or other circumstances (CDC, 2016a). The U.S. experiences gun homicides at a rate nearly 25 times greater than other developed nations (Grinshteyn & Hemenway, 2016). And while we tend to solely quantify this kind of violence in terms of number of deaths and injuries, the impact of exposure to gun violence in our schools, homes, and communities results in many other unforeseen economic, social, and community costs (Irvin-Erickson, Bai, Gurvis, & Mohr, 2016). Additionally, the existing but scattered surveillance efforts to collect data on unintentional gun injuries and deaths, as well as on gun possession by youth (CDC, 2016a; CDC, 2016b; CDC, 2016c) have been insufficient for informing meaningful and effective gun violence prevention programs and policies. Research on firearm violence in the U.S. comprises less than 0.085% of the CDC budget (Rubin, 2016) and less than 0.005% of the NIH’s annual budget (Rubin, 2016; NIH, 2016).


One of the many understudied areas of gun violence involves the implications of firearms inside and surrounding K-12 schools. From 2013 to October 2nd, 2017, there were 128 school shootings within the K-12 school environment, defined as "any instance in which a firearm is discharged inside a school building or on a school campus, as documented by the press, and confirmed through follow-up inquiries with law enforcement”) (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2017; Everytown for Gun Safety, 2016; Kalesan, Lagast, Villarreal, Pino, Fagan, & Galea 2016). While this represents just a small fraction of the incidents of gun violence Americans are exposed to, even one instance of gunfire in a school should be considered one too many. It is worth noting that exposure to gun violence occurs across a spectrum: hearing gunshots, witnessing gunfire, and of course being directly injured by a firearm, which all have implications for a child’s health, development, and well-being (Luthar & Goldstein, 2004; Garbarino, Bradshaw, & Vorrasi, 2002). Work by Bieler and La Vigne (2014) on exposure to gunfire in the vicinity of schools in Washington, D.C. confirmed that just the existence of gunfire in and around schools can adversely impact youth wellbeing.  This work also confirmed the findings of others who have spoken to the cyclical nature of exposure to violence and subsequent engagement in violence among youth (Bingenheimer, Brennan, & Earls, 2005).  Indeed, the anticipation of gun violence is equally concerning. Research has demonstrated that the anticipation of violence more generally can lead to heightened anxiety, fear, depression, and trauma across a range of populations (Benjet, Bromet, et al., 2017; Jackson, James, Owens, & Bryan, 2017; Pryor & Hughes, 2013). Though no current research has examined this phenomenon in the context of anticipating gun violence specifically in K-12 school environments, we posit that the anticipation of gun violence in schools by youth may likely have a similar effect, particularly given the sensationalized and speculative nature of many mass school shootings that have more recently added to a perceived lack of safety in school settings among students and school staff (Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010). Reframing our definition of gun violence to therefore embrace a true prevention framework (Frieden, 2010) involves acknowledging that exposure to gun violence occurs in multiple forms and with varying levels of intensity.


While the rate of violent deaths on school property remains relatively low (less than 3% of all youth homicides occur at school) (NCIPC, 2014), there are many serious implications of exposure to gun violence across the spectrum on youth health and learning outcomes, as also noted above (Basch, 2011; Ander, Cook, Ludwig, & Pollack, 2009; Cook & Laub, 2002). Understanding the complex relationship between the school environment and violence is especially vital given that middle and high school aged-youth, for example, on average spend nearly half of their waking hours in their school environment (Allard, 2008). Therefore, the role of the school environment in both enabling and reducing rates of gun violence is of particular importance. Research has increasingly demonstrated the role of a positive school climate on impacting students' health, ability to engage positively with their peers, and their learning processes (Thapa, 2013). Research has also elucidated that existing responses to the anticipation of school shootings have little or no evidence base, and effective solutions to address hypothesized antecedents of gun violence have yet to be implemented and carefully evaluated. Little is understood about which behavioral risk factors predict school-based gun violence among youth (Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010).


Whereas previous discourse has argued for a singular focus on "community violence” as somehow separate from a school focus, we embrace the research that violence is not geographically isolated to schools or communities (Lane, Rubinstein, Bergen-Cico, Jennings-Bey, Fish, et al., 2017), and in fact, as firearms travel back and forth between places, so too does the threat and experience of gun-related violence. Our focus on K-12 schools, therefore, is a strategic move to reposition schools as sites that need to be protected by advocating for firearm policies known to help effectively limit youth access to weapons (Webster & Wintemute, 2015; Santaella-Tenorio, Cerda, Villaveces, & Galea, 2016), as well as sites from which agency against gun violence can be curricularly and  pedagogically cultivated, strengthening school communities. Zero tolerance policies in schools gained popularity in the mid-1990s following the passing of the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994 and grew in prominence following the Columbine tragedy. However, work by the American Psychological Association confirmed that such policies likely negatively impact the wellbeing of students without any corresponding and notable improvement in the safety of the school environment (2008). More recent work confirmed that zero tolerance efforts do not effectively get to the heart of the problem and cause more disruption and harm to students and schools than good (Teske, 2011; Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010). Indeed, punitive approaches only provide temporary response to what are often deep-seated reasons for how and why guns and forms of gun violence enter school grounds.


The education community has a clear responsibility to address guns, gun violence, and the anticipation of gun violence in K-12 schools and in the communities surrounding these schools, and to do so without further contributing to the criminalization of children, youth, and communities they serve. Numerous physicians, psychologists, health policy experts, and injury prevention researchers have called for more data and resources to directly address our nation’s gun violence crisis, and their work has been critical in bringing these issues to the forefront (Webster, Cerda, Wintemute, & Cook, 2016; Winker, Abbasi, & Rivara, 2016). Further and because of enormous organizational efforts by many, including mayors, mothers, gun violence survivors, and regular citizens (Americans for Responsible Solutions; Brady Campaign; Coalition to Stop Gun Violence; Everytown for Gun Safety/Moms Demand Action; Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence), there have been broad, community-wide calls for action to support gun violence prevention laws at both the state and federal level. Given the presence of guns, gun violence, and perceived threat of gun violence in our K-12 schools, however, it is imperative that these collective calls for action be loudly echoed and subsequently renewed by the education community. Keeping guns out of schools, reducing gun violence there, and addressing the perceived threat of gun violence must be considered an educational priority. This is in line with the goals of AERA (2012), the NEA (2015), and others who have in recent years emphasized the need for the more effective prevention of firearm violence in the school environment. To do so, however, requires a clear operationalizing of gun violence, comprehensive research efforts addressing the behavioral antecedents leading to gun possession and use in schools, data collection efforts that allow us to better understand the circumstances under which youth are obtaining access to guns, and efforts to understand which programmatic and curricular efforts are successfully engaging those subgroups at particular risk for gun violence. Effectively reducing guns, gun violence, and the perceived threat of gun violence in schools also requires significant federal investments in education research and practice efforts by the NIH, CDC, as well as Departments of Education, the Institute of Education Sciences, and other organizations currently providing the majority of funding for education-oriented research initiatives, as well as collective and persistent advocacy informed by good evidence.


There is an urgent need for coordinated efforts by the education community to effectively address the implications of firearms inside and surrounding K-12 schools. Schools should be, without question, safe spaces for learning and growth; havens where youth are nurtured and their potential cultivated. Critical health and educational challenges currently facing our nation’s youth cannot be addressed in meaningful ways if they also feel unsafe or threatened. Firearms have no place within our educational system. Keeping guns out of schools and reducing gun violence in them must become a national and educational priority.


The authors would like to thank Ted Alcorn, former Director of Research and Innovation at Everytown for Gun Safety (www.everytownresearch.org) for his invaluable support and thoughtful insights as we conceptualized and edited this piece.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 05, 2017
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22187, Date Accessed: 10/20/2017 10:35:29 AM

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About the Author
  • Sonali Rajan
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    SONALI RAJAN, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of health education at Teachers College
  • Lalitha Vasudevan
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    LALITHA VASUDEVAN, Ph.D., is a professor of education and technology at Teachers College.
  • Kelly Ruggles
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    KELLY RUGGLES, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and Director of Academic Programs at New York University's Department of Medicine.
  • Brande Brown
    New York Methodist Hospital
    E-mail Author
    BRANDE BROWN, M.D. is a pediatrician in the Department of Pediatrics at New York Methodist Hospital
  • Helen Verdeli
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    HELEN VERDELI, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
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