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The Shifting Response to School Shootings

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School safety experts recently weighed in on how states and school systems are — and should be — responding to the spate of campus shootings.

They also shared best practices for journalists when covering the issue of school shootings, including how to analyze school districts’ prevention efforts, what stories to look for, and how to report on shootings while minimizing harm to mourning communities.

The May 16 panel came two days before yet another school shooting, this time at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, that led to 10 deaths.

Tawnell Hobbs of The Wall Street Journal moderated the discussion between the three panelists: Kristen Harper, a strategic advisor at Child Trends, Amy Swearer, a legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation, and Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services.

Harper was critical of states and school districts that have responded to threats by expanding budgets to purchase security equipment and increasing the law enforcement presence on campus.

Part of the problem, she said, is that policymakers are under pressure to create a visible response to show they are taking action.

Harper said districts would be better off focusing their efforts on building an environment of trust so students feel comfortable reporting suspicious behavior to school staff. Students need to know their concerns will be taken seriously, Harper added.

“A lot of things that keep our schools safe you cannot see,” she said.

Watch the ‘Hardware Industry’

Trump — who noted that he is not related to President Donald Trump — agreed and said schools would be better off pursuing what he called “evidence-based tools,” including training in-school crisis teams, creating threat assessment protocols and practicing lockdowns at varying times of the day.

Trump told reporters to pay attention to the hardware industry, which he said has begun a concerted effort to lobby state legislators to “shift the focus of school security out of the hands of education departments and into the hands of homeland security departments.”

Their goal, he said, is to get PR and increase sales on items such as security cameras and door hardware intended to make school doors more secure from intruders.

“Follow the money,” Trump said. (Trump’s organization is a private, for-profit consulting firm that provides services on a contract basis to schools, public safety organizations, government agencies and others.)

Reporters should also keep track of whether districts are maintaining their new security equipment, Trump said.

Journalists can do this by submitting public records requests for repair and replacement orders for security cameras and door hardware a few years after purchase, he noted. Reporters may find work orders for broken equipment have been unattended to for years.

Trump produced a tip sheet for reporterswith more story ideas.

‘False Narratives’?

Swearer of The Heritage Foundation questioned some legislative proposals put forward to address school security, such as efforts to raise the minimum age for gun purchases. She noted that in many cases, student shooters take guns from relatives.

Days after the panel, Swearer wrote an opinion piece, “Dispelling False Narratives in the Wake of the Santa Fe Tragedy.” In it, she disputed the idea that armed guards at schools are ineffective. She also cast doubt on the notion that commonly proposed gun control measures would prevent school shootings, and criticized a recent reported claim that students are in greater danger than U.S. soldiers.

The May shooting at a Santa Fe, Texas, high school “has helped perpetuate gun control and school safety narratives that are sliding further from the truth than ever before,” she wrote.

Panelists discuss school safety at EWA's National Seminar in Los Angeles. From left: Kenneth Trump, Amy Swearer, Kristen Harper and Tawnell Hobbs. (Annika Hammerschlag for EWA)

During the EWA panel, the speakers also discussed the importance of defining what constitutes a school shooting.

For example, Swearer said a parent who wants to know how likely their child is of getting injured while at school may not be so concerned with a non-student involved shooting that took place over the summer.

“The way we define what a school shooting is dramatically affects the numbers that we get and the stories that come out,” she said. “Not all definitions are created equal.”

An accurate definition of what constitutes a school shooting will help communities understand the problem and work toward an appropriate solution, she said.

Trump advised reporters to gather crime and discipline data from multiple sources, including local school districts, the state department of education, and the local police department.

In most cases, the numbers won’t come close to matching the reality, he said.

“Federal and state statistics grossly underestimate the extent of school crime and violence. Public perception tends to grossly overstate it. Reality is somewhere in between, but in real numbers none of us know,” he said.

Federal Data on School Shootings

Harper noted that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently released data on what it calls “school-related shootings” (and “school-related homicides”), but warned reporters to be critical of the results as districts may define school shootings differently when reporting their numbers.

The panelists were asked how to responsibly cover school shootings, considering that any coverage at all could lead to copycats.

All three speakers agreed that the best course of action is to avoid focusing news coverage on the shooters.

“It’s hard to write a story without naming a name, especially when it’s being widely reported,” Swearer said. “The responsible thing is to make sure we’re not glorifying it.”

Harper suggested reporters avoid categorizing shootings as “the biggest ever” or “the worst,” as perpetrators may be looking to set records. She said it could be helpful to increase coverage of incidents where the shooter is unsuccessful or thwarted by law enforcement.

Writing more stories about the victims and heroes is also a good course of action, Trump said.

He also advised reporters to give more coverage to the consequences students face after threatening their school, such as suspensions, expulsions and criminal proceedings.

“Oftentimes that doesn’t get the (same) amount of attention,” he said.