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Debriefing: Arapahoe High School Shooting Policy Implications

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After every incident of school violence, government and educational leaders inevitably ask if another rule, procedure, or law could have better protected the victims. The Friday shooting at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo., is no exception.

Officials said Karl Pierson, an 18-year-old student, entered the high school that day in search of a debate coach who had disciplined him, openly armed with explosive devices, a shotgun, and a machete. He then shot a classmate, 17-year-old Claire Davis, in the face, critically injuring her, police said, before taking his own life. Another student suffered less severe injuries in the incident.

When Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper made the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday, the question inevitably came up: What could have been done to prevent this? Hickenlooper listed off a handful of state programs Colorado has launched and interventions in place at Arapahoe High School before concluding that he hasn't identified a clear policy response to the incident.

It seems the response at the school, the preparation of law enforcement, and the laws of the state fit many of the expectations of folks on all sides of the school safety discussion. Here's what we know:

  • Following school shootings in Newtown, Conn., Colorado took the politically controversial step of tightening its gun laws by adding universal background checks and restrictions of certain kinds of weapons. But Pierson, by law an adult, legally purchased the shotgun he used in the shooting, police said.
  • Colorado has a confidential system for students to report peers who have threatened school violence. But fellow students didn't seem to expect such behavior from Pierson, an Eagle Scout described as outgoing and opinionated.
  • Arapahoe High School had both an on-site sheriff's deputy and a security guard, Hickenlooper said, and both responded to the scene less than a minute after the shooting started. Pierson apparently shot himself when he realized police were reporting to the scene, officials said.
  • Local police agencies worked together in well-practiced protocols to quickly search the school for other shooters and evacuate students who were under lockdown in their classrooms, the governor said.
  • Colorado recently created a $20 million, statewide, mental-health crisis response system that includes 24-hour counseling hotlines. But officials have not publicly identified any signs of mental illness in the alleged gunman.
  • Live coverage immediately following the shootings showed students evacuating their school in orderly lines with their hands up, clearly reenacting a routine they've practiced in safety drills.

What's left? What obvious, studied, heavily supported policy was not at play here? Some reporters questioned whether the school should have had locks and staff monitoring every entrance. But Hickenlooper said on CNN that high school campuses require easy exit and entrance from several doors. And it's not clear whether staff saw the shooter and just didn't have a chance to intervene earlier. The on-site deputy "was there less than a minute from the first shot," Hickenlooper said. "That's a remarkable response."

It's clear the situation could have been worse, but that provides little comfort to parents who are terrified that things like this happen at all, no matter how statistically improbable they are.

Are policies designed to promote safety in schools considered effective if they limit the number of people who are injured when an armed intruder does make his way onto campus?  Or should effective policies prevent such an act all together? What more can be done?

Photo: A parent picks up her daughter at a church where evacuated students from nearby Arapahoe High School waited after a shooting on the Centennial, Colo., campus on Dec. 13. -Brennan Linsley/AP

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