Nashville, Tennessee, and Des Moines, Iowa, are just two communities among 24 across America that have experienced a school shooting so far in 2023. The United States is well on track to meet or even exceed last year’s count of 51 total school shootings, which left 100 individuals injured and 40 killed—32 of whom were children. Understandably, nearly half of parents of K-12 students reported fearing for their children’s safety in school in 2022, marking a steep increase from just a few years before.
In the continued absence of direct, sustained gun control legislation at the federal level, addressing the ongoing problem of gun violence in schools requires a holistic approach to school safety and security that ultimately utilizes proven violence prevention practices, leverages federal funding for community-based intervention programs, and centers community voices in decision-making processes. One lever for implementing these promising programs and practices is the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA), which was signed into law last year and includes numerous investments in school-based mental health services and other community-based initiatives to make schools safer. President Joe Biden recently reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to leveraging the BSCA to reduce gun violence in a USA Today op-ed, accompanied by a list of actions the executive branch is taking to maximize the benefits of this legislation.
This article presents four key strategies for addressing school gun violence at the community level.
School policies and practices that prevent violence and promote early intervention are lifesaving measures for students and school personnel.
Best practices for building safe and supportive school climates
Implement critical support and intervention systems and embed social and emotional learning in curricula
School policies and practices that prevent violence and promote early intervention are lifesaving measures for students and school personnel. One key preventative tool is the use of critical support and intervention systems such as positive behavior interventions and supports and multitiered systems of supports. These systems set thresholds of student behavior for educator intervention and create formal procedures for supporting students’ social, behavioral, and mental health needs, therefore playing a crucial role in preventing and addressing instances of violence in schools.
Additionally, embedding social and emotional learning practices in academic instruction helps to create a supportive school environment that empowers students to engage in nonviolent problem-solving and to proactively report threats and concerns.
Employ restorative discipline practices and minimize the presence of law enforcement in schools
Another major component of a safe and supportive school climate is the use of restorative discipline practices such as mediation conferences, conflict resolution programs, youth courts, community-building circles, and proactive strategies to implement support and intervention systems such as those mentioned above. Research does not support zero-tolerance policies and forms of exclusionary discipline, such as out-of-school suspensions, as effective measures for preventing violence; in fact, removing students from critical supports in school may exacerbate behavioral and mental health problems.
Further, the presence of law enforcement officials such as school resource officers (SROs) may escalate responses to threats and criminalize lower-level offenses, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline and actually making some students feel less safe—including students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and particularly students of color, who are disproportionately affected by gun violence. School “hardening” policies such as adding metal detectors, armed security, and surveillance cameras can also be detrimental to student learning and well-being at school. Instead, schools should focus on creating safer learning environments through mental health services, after-school programming, and community-based supports.
Strategies to incorporate community involvement in decision-making
Create avenues to include community stakeholders’ voices and experiences in decision-making
Many forms of community violence are tied to structural inequalities, and community organizers have adopted new approaches for alleviating such challenges. Organizing advisory councils of youth, families, and community members is one way to increase community involvement in decision-making. This is already a requirement of some federal grant programs such as the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant, which received $250 million from the BSCA to fund mental health services for children and adults with mental illness. The program requires states to have mental health planning councils that review the state’s plan and monitor the allocation of mental health services. Most councils must comprise service recipients and family members and include representatives from a variety of state agencies, including education.
Utilize community violence intervention programs to identify needs and establish solutions
Community violence intervention (CVI) programs are another effective set of tools. They involve partnerships between community members, government agencies, and other stakeholders who have established strong credibility and rapport through relationship-building within communities with high rates of gun violence due to systemic disinvestments, trauma, and economic and social well-being stressors. CVI programs emphasize people-centered approaches, which involve hiring advocates and stakeholders who live and work in the communities served through the program; who have relevant experiences in reducing violence; and who are dedicated to supporting community-based healing and conflict resolution through mediation and de-escalation techniques.
CVI programs as a whole have been shown to decrease homicide rates by up to 60 percent.
A variety of CVI programs have proved effective in reducing gun violence, and CVI programs as a whole have been shown to decrease homicide rates by up to 60 percent. Not all CVI programs are focused on youth, but they may incorporate elements that are youth-focused, such as summer employment opportunities and after-school programs. For example, the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI) in Massachusetts—a cross-sector, youth-oriented CVI program—involves partnerships between police departments and youth-serving organizations. The program aims to identify, engage, and connect with youth ages 17–24 who are affected by violent crime and provide them with opportunities to work with caseworkers to address individual needs. SSYI programmatic evaluations reveal both community- and individual-level benefits of the program, and SSYI cities have reported a total of 815 fewer violent crime victims ages 14–24 annually, with participants experiencing 36 percent fewer violent offenses than similar nonenrolled youth. SSYI has also proved to be cost-effective, with every $1 investment in the program saving cities more than $5 in victimization costs.
Additionally, schools and school boards are vital partners in improving gun safety communitywide. Organizations such as Everytown for Gun Safety have created toolkits and policy proposals that community members can use to encourage their schools to take action and collaborate with city and county leadership to implement commonsense gun safety measures, including safe storage campaigns.
Read more about the benefits of CVI programs
Since schools cannot be separated from their community environments, it is key to address local safety issues and center communities in solutions in order to equitably and sustainably improve school safety. However, while such strategies are crucial for addressing America’s gun violence epidemic, communities cannot do this work alone. Government at all levels must institute commonsense gun violence prevention measures—such as reinstating the assault weapons ban, requiring firearms to be stored securely, and adopting extreme risk protection order policies—to empower families, courts, and law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from individuals in crisis. These are all effective ways to prevent and reduce gun-related deaths in the nation’s public institutions, including schools.