By Vern Pierson, Special to CalMatters

Vern Pierson is El Dorado County District Attorney, and a board member of the California District Attorneys Association, vern.pierson@edcgov.us. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters. To read his other commentaries for CalMatters, please click here, here, here, and here.

Despite crime being at record setting lows, national polling reveals 93% of parents consider school safety a top priority.

In the aftermath of isolated but widely reported horrific school shootings, education leaders report they’re inundated with sales pitches from security companies, each with the same basic message: You could be next.  

Fear mongering of exceedingly rare but deadly mass shootings fueled a $3 billion-dollar school security industrial complex.

Unfortunately, and far too often, these approaches are ill conceived and unsupported by science. Worried affluent parents are purchasing bulletproof backpacks and well-intentioned administrators are contracting for ill-conceived lock down training. 

In a few bizarre examples, teachers were shot with paintballs and students were asked to pretend to be victims and lie down in school hallways using fake blood. One school even hired a stranger to wear a mask to rattle the doors of classrooms without letting faculty and students know.

While people who peddle fear for profit should be ashamed, we must acknowledge the reality of the phenomena of mass targeted attacks, their occurrence and deadliness have increased, and parents legitimately want solutions.

The advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety joined with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ unions, in calling for schools to reassess the use of lockdown drills and lay out a comprehensive safety plan that includes threat assessment and school-based intervention strategies.

These groups have acknowledged the sad reality we are instead traumatizing all students while seeking to prevent the very rare occurrence.

Moreover, since nearly all school shooters are current or former students, drills may serve to facilitate would be attackers being more lethal. That happened with the attacker at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla. He was a former student, who participated in prior drills, pulled the fire alarms to defeat the procedure.

Real solutions are grounded in science not profit.  

California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris recently said: “Gunmen in mass shootings share a common trait: adverse childhood experiences, also referred to as ‘ACES’.”

This observation is consistent with the vast amount of research conducted in this area.

Mass shooting research reveals four commonalities among perpetrators of these horrific events:

  • Early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at an early age.
  • An identifiable crisis point leading up to the shooting.
  • Most shooters had studied the actions of other shooters and sought validation for their motives.
  • The shooters all had the means to carry out their plans.  

The science informs us that regardless of the narrative or motive, in nearly every instance others persons knew some details of a planned attack. 

We need a coordinated system of information gathering, including anonymous reporting, as well as public awareness of the need to say something when you become aware of concerning behavior

Multiple studies from the University of Virginia show schools utilizing a threat assessment approach have lower rates of bullying, greater willingness to seek help for bullying and threats of violence, more positive perceptions of school climate, fewer long-term suspensions, and greater rates of counseling services and parental involvement.

California Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, Encino Democrat, is pursuing legislation that would require a research based comprehensive school safety plan to include a targeted violence prevention plan, and to establish a multidisciplinary threat assessment team of school personnel to ensure access to appropriate services for the individual and ensure the safety at the school.

Unfortunately, the $3 billion dollar school safety industry is focused more on profit than on science based solutions to school safety.  Our kids deserve better than this.  

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Vern Pierson is El Dorado County District Attorney, and a board member of the California District Attorneys Association, vern.pierson@edcgov.us. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters. To read his other commentaries for CalMatters, please click here, here, here, and here.

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