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Five Years After the Sandy Hook School Shootings, a Focus on Preventing Violence

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City buildings in Newtown, Conn., will close for 45 minutes Thursday morning to provide a moment of reflection five years after a school shooting that shook the town and became a new focal point in ongoing debates about school safety and gun laws.

Unlike smaller-scale events of violence that tragically feel more routine, the details of that day are etched in public memory: On December 14, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School where he shot and killed 20 young children and six adults before killing himself as law enforcement arrived.

The event stirred many questions. Are schools doing enough to address the mental health needs of students? Would stricter gun laws help prevent similar tragedies in the future? What is the right approach to school safety? And, most prominently, why did this happen?

School Safety Efforts Focus on Prevention

There have been 144 incidents in which a gun has been discharged in a K-12 school since the Newtown shootings, according to Every Town for Gun Safety. That number does not include the latest shootings at Aztec High School in New Mexico, where a gunman shot and killed two students before killing himself.

Contrary to popular narratives, most mass shooters don't "just snap," a speaker told the American Psychological Association in 2014. In fact, shooters often "leak" their intentions beforehand, giving indications to peers and relatives that they plan to act violently, Anders Goranson, a psychologist and threat-assessment specialist, said in a lecture. 

"I think this idea of 'just snapped' really undermines the importance of ongoing risk management and assessment," Goranson said at the time.

People need to feel empowered to share information or conversations that "made the hair stand up on the back of their neck," he said. "If we believe this comes out of nowhere, then why do any of these things?"

School safety experts have increasingly focused on the value of prevention, giving students a safe, often anonymous way to report concerns. That's why many states have launched phone and internet safety tiplines, like one in Colorado, that have been credited with averting many would-be shootings. 

In the week of the shooting's anniversary, Sandy Hook Promise, an organization founded by some families of the victims, released a public service announcement to emphasize the importance of speaking up about safety concerns. In the ad, a TV news reporter gives an all too familiar report about a school shooting with one twist: the shooting hasn't happened yet. The text at the bottom of the screen reads: "student to carry out shooting tomorrow," and the people the reporter interviews discuss what they will say the next day, after it actually happens. "He told some of us that his dad kept a gun in his closet, and he always talked about using it on, you know, the people that bullied him," the gunman's classmate says in the ad. "Tomorrow I'll probably say that I wish I told someone."

Sandy Hook Promise, which is also known for championing tougher gun laws, has developed programs to encourage prevention in schools. Their efforts include "Say Something," a program that teaches students how to recognize the signs that a peer may plan to harm himself or herself or others. As Education Week's Lisa Stark recently reported in a story for the PBS Newshour, schools are increasingly incorporating such programs, and broader threat assessment work, into their safety plans.

Response to Sandy Hook Includes Students' Mental Health, Relationships

Sandy Hook is one of several high-profile shootings that have stirred conversations about mental health, sense of belonging at school, and student well-being.

A state report about gunman Adam Lanza released in 2014 painted a picture of repeated missed opportunities—by schools, relatives and mental health professionals—to intervene in a downward spiral of isolation, emotional instability, and mental illness:

The report stresses that "no direct line of causation" can be drawn from the lapses in adequate treatment and Lanza's ultimate violent acts. It includes recommendations for universal screening for mental health and developmental impairments for children from birth to age 21 and better care coordination between community, educational, and health care organizations.

"Schools may not be equipped to provide, or even to import, comprehensive behavioral health or developmental supports to children, and will need significant support to ensure adequate expertise and related services for children with highly specialized needs," the report concludes.

 A Connecticut state panel later recommended a series of post-Newtown interventions for schools, including coordination of community-based mental health services, risk-assessment teams that explore the behavioral and needs of students, and active instruction in "healthy social development."

Newtown Remains a Talking Point in Debates Over Arming Teachers

Debates over arming teachers and school staff that were stoked after Sandy Hook continue today, sometimes surging after more recent school shootings.

Under federal law, schools are designated gun-free zones unless there's an exception created by state law. As Education Week's Kavitha Cardoza reported in this video piece, some states have considered proposals to change their laws to allow for educators to carry guns on school campuses. 

But a group of educators—including survivors of the Sandy Hook shootings and other acts of school violence—have organized against such efforts. Arming teachers won't make schools any safer, they say, arguing in favor of broader efforts to address gun violence.

Preparing Students Through Safety Drills

The use of school safety drills has increased significantly since the events in Newtown. That's in part because of a surge of state bills that were proposed after the shootings that set new state mandates for school safety and preparedness.

As I reported in September, some of those drills have gotten more complicated, teaching students tactics like how to escape out windows if a teacher instructs them to and even fight back in extreme situations. Some experts question the effectiveness of such drills. They say they provoke unnecessary fear, especially in young students. But some schools, and some parents want them in place.

Matt Holland, a teacher and a father, said in that story that he doesn't want his students or his own children to be "sitting ducks" in the unlikely event of a school shooting.

"While, yes, statistically speaking, the chances [of a shooting] are very slim," he said, "I don't want, heaven forbid, something to happen to my students or my daughter and to say, 'There was a small chance it would happen, and it happened. And no one ever planned for it.' "

Photo: A makeshift memorial studded with crosses representing the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting stands outside of a home in Newtown, Conn., in 2013. -Robert F. Bukaty/AP-File


Related reading on the Newtown shootings and school safety:

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