As children return to the classroom after a year of home learning due to the pandemic, schools will settle back into their old routines; timetables, extracurricular clubs, homework assignments, sports, and—of course—the morbid necessity of active shooter drills.
They do so after a run of high-profile mass shootings—generally defined as four or more victims—including during a home welfare check in Boone, North Carolina; in traffic congestion at Shreveport, Louisiana; at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana; at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado; and at spas in Atlanta, Georgia, among many others.
The past year has also seen record gun sales in the U.S., increasing the access to firearms in the homes of many children. And research shows COVID lockdowns have wreaked an appalling toll on youth mental health.
“To say I’m worried about the safety of our schools as they return to class is an understatement,” Shannon Watts, founder of the Moms Demand Action campaign, told Newsweek.
It’s no surprise that the pandemic coincided with a lull in school shooting incidents. EducationWeek‘s School Shooting Tracker recorded 10 incidents and three deaths, two of them children, in 2020. Nine people were injured.
It compares to 25 incidents in 2019, a 60 percent fall, including eight deaths—five of them children—and 43 injuries. In 2018, there were 24 incidents leading to 35 people killed—among them 28 students—and 79 injuries. This was the year the tracker started.
The last school mass shooting by a student to occur before the pandemic took place on November 14, 2019, at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California.
A 16-year-old boy pulled a handgun—a so-called “ghost gun”—from his backpack in the quad and started shooting. He killed two other teenage students, injured three more, and shot himself. He also died.
Not everyone is back in the classroom yet, though most students are. Education data firm Burbio’s reopening tracker says 65.3 percent of K-12 students are now attending school in-person.
In 2021 so far there have been five shootings causing three deaths—one a student—and two injuries.
The threat returns with the children, one now heightened by months of lockdown-induced mental health problems. The tiny number of children capable of pointing the barrel at their fellow students may have grown larger; those sitting on the edge tipped over.
“I think it will aggravate the threat as classroom learning returns,” Dr. J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, told Newsweek.
Troubled children stuck at home were among the most vulnerable under lockdown for a range of reasons.
Some are victims of neglectful or abusive parents. Others are from loving homes but with mental health issues fizzing away quietly beneath the surface. The corrosive loneliness of social isolation has eaten into the mental stability of many people, and youth offers no immunity.
A study of private health care claims by the data nonprofit FAIR Health found that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a “profound impact on mental health,” particularly for young people.
In March and April 2020, mental health claims for individuals aged 13-18 doubled on the year before.
“Young people have proven especially vulnerable to mental health issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the FAIR Health report said. “School closures, having to learn remotely and isolating from friends due to social distancing have been sources of stress and loneliness.”
A review of the scientific literature so far on how the pandemic is impacting children’s mental health, published in December in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, concluded: “High rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic symptoms were identified among children.”
For the vast majority of children with mental health problems, any harm will be focused on themselves. But it only takes one with access to a gun to channel that harm against others, causing those horrifying and all-too-familiar scenes to play out once again.
Some research suggests a link between mental health problems and school shooters, though the issue is complex and there is not a clear causal connection between psychological problems and gun violence.
“Evidence strongly suggests that mass shooters are often mentally ill and socially marginalized,” noted a 2015 paper in the American Journal of Public Health.
However, the authors also cautioned: “On the aggregate level, the notion that mental illness causes gun violence stereotypes a vast and diverse population of persons diagnosed with psychiatric conditions and oversimplifies links between violence and mental illness.”
People who suffer with mental health issues are not destined to commit acts of violence purely because they are psychologically unwell.
But it is a risk factor, and 2004 research by the Secret Service and Department of Education found most school shooters had “some history of suicidal attempts or thoughts, or a history of feeling extreme depression or desperation.”
Moreover, nearly three-quarters “felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident.” As schools return, bullying incidents could be the spark to start the fire in a mind destabilized under lockdown.
“Mental health issues are typically involved in cases of school shooting, but are never the sole cause,” Meloy told Newsweek, adding that schools have “two major ways” to mitigate the risk of shootings on their campuses.
“One, from a primary prevention perspective, have in place easy access to mental health resources for the children on school grounds with professionals who are competent to provide such services, and licensed to do so.
“Awareness of these services should be widely disseminated and known to everyone on the campus.
“Two, have in place a multidisciplinary threat assessment team—usually composed of a school counselor, school administrator, and school resource officer at minimum—that can respond efficiently and effectively to students of concern with help, not just discipline.”
He added that the team “should also be using a method of mitigating threats that has extensive scientific support,” and cited The Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines developed by Dr. Dewey Cornell and associates at University of Virginia.
Infamy is also a known motivator for some school shooters. The chance to be the name making media headlines and to trend on social media as the first mass school shooter since classroom doors reopened may offer the perceived cachet some secretly desire.
“It is apparent in some cases, but has lessened as a motivation across studies on mass attacks over the past two decades,” Meloy said of the role of fame-seeking among school shooters.
“We do know that following a highly publicized mass attack in the U.S., there is usually a two-week period where the frequency of mass attacks increases, including school shootings.
“We also know that copycat effects are real—for example, there have been at least 100 completed or planned and thwarted mass attacks in the U.S. that were inspired by Columbine since 1999.
“However, it is very important to recognize that mass attacks in the U.S. represent a very small percentage of individuals who are killed by firearms in the U.S. each year, either homicides or suicides, and we have seen a dramatic increase in gun violence over the past year.”
To top it all off, guns are becoming even more prevalent in American society. During the pandemic, and alongside the summer of disorder that broke out from the racial justice protests, gun sales rocketed as people armed themselves to the teeth.
According to data from Small Arms Analytics, a research consultancy focused on the market, gun sales between January and September alone in 2020 hit 16.7 million. That is higher than gun sales for every other full year in the past two decades.
“We know that nationally nearly five million children live in homes with unsecured firearms—and that was before last year’s record number of gun sales,” Watts of Moms Demand Action told Newsweek.
“It doesn’t have to be this way. Secure gun storage is a critical first step to keeping our kids safe, but we need federal action, accompanied by action on the state and local levels, to protect our communities from gun violence.”
Last week, on an otherwise normal Monday at Minnesota’s Plymouth Middle School, a sixth-grade student turned up to school armed with a loaded handgun.
He fired multiple shots in the hallway in front of other children just as the day was starting. The shooter was swiftly detained by a school resource officer. There were no injuries.
“It’s traumatic for any student to have to experience. It’s traumatic for any staff member to have to experience,” Stephanie Burrage, interim superintendent of Robbinsdale Area Schools, told KARE 11.
“I had a mother in my arms crying today. She was just balling. And I told her I’m going to deliver your child to you. I’m going to make sure that your child gets in your arms.”
The boy’s father, Troy Gorham, later apologized for the incident. He said his son had removed the gun from his bedroom and taken it to school as a “cry for help” with the goal of “suicide-by-cop,” not to hurt others.
“It’s the first year of middle school. He didn’t keep in contact with friends from elementary school,” Gorham told KTSP.
“The COVID. These kids are getting depressed. They have no friends. They don’t know what to do. They’re sitting on their computers. It’s starting to fry their brains.”
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