Parents are known to be worry-warts when it comes to their children. It's what we do. But the results of a recent study by Ball State University nevertheless shocked me when I received an email about it last week.
More than one-third of parents surveyed, all living in the Midwest, believe it is highly likely their local high school will suffer some sort of shooting incident in the next three years, according to the study from the Indiana college that was recently published in the Journal of Community Health. That's depressing.
The study's authors, however, note that firearm violence in schools is actually quite rare, despite parents' perceptions. In 2015, there were 2,787 recorded firearms deaths among Americans younger than 19. Of those, 95 percent of homicides and suicides occurred off school grounds.
That's not to say gun violence among adolescents isn't a problem. As evidenced by the total number of deaths related to firearms above, it's clear that it is. But that's a topic for another day.
Related to schools, part of the reason for parents' misconceptions is the amount of publicity school shootings receive, according to the study's authors. Certainly, mass tragedies over the last two decades such as Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook are forever etched in people's minds and contributed to parents' worry, because they could seemingly happen anywhere.
Since the Sandy Hook shooting that took 28 lives in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, there have been at least 100 other reported firearms incidents in schools — from elementary to college — across the country.
One of those hit close to home, when in February 2015, two students were shot near the gymnasium of Frederick High School during a basketball game. Fortunately, no one died and the shooter was sentenced to 12 years in prison in December of that same year. The incident was reportedly related to a gang dispute.
Media coverage of most of these incidents didn't rise to the level of mass shootings. Coverage tended to be more localized since — again, fortunately — the number of casualties was limited to a few people or in some cases, only injuries were sustained. It doesn't make the acts any less reprehensible or disconcerting to parents, though.
High-profile mass shootings contribute to parents' fears, even though they are, in reality, few and far between. The real fear — and as parents of school-aged children, the one that concerns my wife and I the most and that I suspect most parents share — is our personal inability to do anything to prevent such an incident from occurring and protect our kids.
Jagdish Khubchandani, an associate professor of health science at Ball State University, and one of the authors of the study, said the research "suggests that most parents have a limited knowledge of what works and what doesn't in preventing these incidents," and that "some parents are quick to blame others for a shooting because they have no idea how to stop such incidents from happening."
Parents who responded to the survey indicated they perceived the following to be most effective in reducing firearm violence in schools: installing an alert system in the schools, working with law enforcement to design an emergency response plan, creating a comprehensive security plan, requiring criminal background checks for all school personnel prior to hiring and implementing an anonymous system for students to report peer concerns regarding potential violence.
The study also found that parents viewed practices that are somewhat common in schools, such as random backpack or locker searches, installation of metal detectors and bullet-proof glass, to be less effective policies for reducing gun violence there. Parents were also leery about the idea of having school personnel carrying firearms, according to the study.
What the study doesn't offer is any evidence of what does actually prevent these incidents and notes that "research regarding specific interventions schools should undertake to best reduce their risks of firearm violence occurring at school (or at school events) is non-existent."
So what are parents, and school systems, to do?
Recently, we published an article about Duane Williams, who after a 25-year career in law enforcement was hired by Carroll County Public Schools in spring 2015 to be its supervisor of security and management. The Maryland Center for School Safety last month recognized Williams as one of its School Safety/Security Directors of the Year for putting a special focus on student safety.
During the weeks leading up to the first day of school this Tuesday, Williams met with teachers and administrators to discuss fight or flight and the importance of situational awareness, referencing the mass school shootings we are all too familiar with, what went wrong in those incidents and what they should do if such a situation, God forbid, ever arose in Carroll County schools.
It's great that Williams and the school system are taking this sort of proactive approach with its employees and have implemented other security measures over the past five years or so to prevent an incident from occurring here.
Considering the Ball State study, however, is there a way to also more actively involve parents of students, to communicate steps being taken locally, and to solicit feedback on their gravest concerns regarding firearms violence in schools?
Khubchandani suggests the study is "a strong indicator that parents want a greater say in how their local schools are addressing the issue." Carroll schools seem to be doing a good job, but its leaders — and those of all Maryland school systems — should consider giving parents of their students a forum to discuss policies on this sensitive topic to assuage their fears and talk about how they can help.
Wayne Carter is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.