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What schools can (and can't) do to prevent school shootings

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Newtown, Parkland, Santa Fe and now Uvalde. There are striking similarities among all of these school shootings, and after every one of them, there has been a tendency to ask, how do we prevent the next one? Well, as NPR's Cory Turner reports, for years, school safety experts have been pretty clear on the answers.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Matthew Mayer has been studying school violence since before Columbine. He's part of a big group of researchers who started putting out position papers back in 2006 about why school shootings happen. The question today, Mayer says, is not why. It's...

MATTHEW MAYER: Do we want to change, or is this acceptable to us? And we have to start being more honest with ourselves.

TURNER: For Mayer, a professor at Rutgers, that honesty has to begin with gun safety policy. There's a broad consensus from school safety experts that arming teachers is not good policy. Mayer and his colleagues have called for universal background checks and banning assault-style weapons.

MAYER: We don't let people buy hand grenades. We don't let people buy bazookas and other instruments of war.

TURNER: In its own report on school shootings, the U.S. Secret Service also flagged the importance of gun storage safety. In half the shootings they studied, the gun used was either readily accessible at home or not really secured. Now, to the things researchers say schools can actually control, there's been a lot of movement in recent years toward hardening schools, like adding police officers and metal detectors. But Odis Johnson Jr., who heads the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins, says schools should focus on softening.

ODIS JOHNSON: Our first preventative strategies should be to make sure kids are respected, that they feel connected and belong in schools.

MAYER: That means being truly responsive to the social and emotional needs of students, working to build kids' skills around conflict resolution, stress management and empathy for their classmates.

SCARLETT LEWIS: These are things that we learn. And if your parents didn't have these skills and tools or all of them, you can't give what you don't have.

TURNER: Scarlett Lewis founded Choose Love for Schools after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School 10 years ago. Choose Love is a social-emotional curriculum being used in thousands of schools. I interviewed her back in 2019, and she told me how much she loves working with kids to build kinder, safer schools.

LEWIS: One day I was handing out bracelets, and I said, what's your favorite character value? And they said, without hesitation, forgiveness. And I'm like, really? Why forgiveness? Because you can let it go, because it feels good.

TURNER: The idea is these skills can help reduce all sorts of unwanted behaviors, including fighting and bullying. In its report, the Secret Service found most of the school attackers they studied had been bullied. Jackie Nowicki has led multiple school safety investigations at the Government Accountability Office. And she says her team found a few things closely linked to making school environments safer.

JACKIE NOWICKI: Anti-bullying training for staff and teachers, adult supervision, things like hall monitors and mechanisms to anonymously report hostile behaviors.

TURNER: The Secret Service, as well as school safety experts, also recommend schools implement what they call a threat assessment model, where a team of trained staff, including an administrator, a counselor or school psychologist and a law enforcement representative work together to identify and support students in crisis before they hurt others, which reminds me of something Scarlett Lewis told me back in 2019.

LEWIS: There are only two kinds of people in the world - good people and good people in pain.

TURNER: And from Lewis, that's a powerful thing to say. Her 6-year-old son, Jesse, was murdered alongside many of his classmates at Sandy Hook Elementary. Cory Turner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GHOSTFACE KILLAH AND BADBADNOTGOOD SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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