When violence strikes schools on a large scale, the horrific news spreads not just from campus to campus, but to every home across the country. After the deadly attack in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., most everyone—educators, law enforcement officials, parents, politicians and community members—were shaken by the enormity of the tragedy and felt compelled to act, just as they did in the aftermath of massacres at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech.
The initial responses to the Sandy Hook have ranged from proposing harsher restrictions on gun ownership to calling for armed personnel at every school in the nation.
Yet, while the debate moves forward about what to do to prevent a similar attack, the gun violence that routinely occurs in and around our nation’s schools and universities continues. Some of the gun incidents that have occurred in the previous month:
•On Jan. 3, a security officer at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., fatally shot a man on the edge of the campus after he rammed his vehicle repeatedly into another car and then began waving a gun at bystanders.
•On Jan. 10, a student arrived at his morning science class at Taft Union High School in Taft, Calif., with a shotgun and allegedly opened fire on a fellow student. The victim sustained critical wounds, and now is recovering; a teacher also sustained a graze wound from shotgun pellets. The alleged shooter has been charged as an adult with two counts of attempted murder and other crimes.
•On Jan. 16, a part-time student at Stevens Institute of Business and Arts in St. Louis, returned to the school’s downtown location after being denied student aid and shot the school’s financial aid director, Greg Elsenrath. Elsenrath is expected to recover, and the alleged shooter, who also was wounded, was charged with first-degree assault and other crimes.
•On Jan. 22, two students and a maintenance worker were shot on the North Harris campus of Lone Star College near Houston after a quarrel escalated into gunfire. The victims are recovering, and the shooter faces aggravated assault charges.
•On Jan. 29, a student riding on a school bus in Panola County, Miss., sustained a minor gunshot wound when a hunter’s ricocheting bullet went through the side window of the bus.
•Also on Jan. 29, a gunman boarded a school bus in Midland City, Ala., and fatally shot the driver. He then abducted a 6-year-old boy and held him hostage in an underground bunker for a week before an FBI rescue team stormed the bunker and rescued the boy. The gunman was killed.
•In another incident on Jan. 29, Hadiya Pendleton, 15, a student at King College Prep High School in Chicago, was shot to death in a park near her school where she had gone after finishing final exams. A week earlier she had performed with her high school band at President Obama’s inauguration ceremonies.
•On Jan. 31, a student was wounded by gunfire at Price Middle School in Atlanta. Another student, 15, has been charged in the shooting. After the shooting, the district admitted that the school had metal detectors to check for weapons, but they were not operating on the day of the shooting.
The list is not as heartbreaking as the roll call of the first-graders who died in their classrooms at Sandy Hook, but it is a somber reminder that schools, with the help and support of others in the community, must be constantly evaluating their security strategies. Physical measures should be combined with education programs to decrease the chance that an outside intruder will be able to enter a school, and to increase the likelihood that a troubled student will be identified and counseled before violence erupts.
The lessons learned from Columbine and Virginia Tech and other mass shootings that didn’t involve schools were not able to prevent a deranged man from killing 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook. But as long as schools are vigilant about protecting students and preventing violence, other tragedies that might have occurred will not become a reality.
“We may not be able to prevent every massacre or random shooting,” President Obama told an audience in Minnesota recently. “No law or set of laws can keep our children completely safe. But if there’s even one thing we can do, if there’s just one life we can save, we’ve got an obligation to try.”