I Experienced Two Attempted School Shootings. Don’t Make Me Experience Another.

| Chief of Copy
Illustration by Tuesday Hadden

Content warning: This article contains discussion of gun violence.

“Please lift your head off the desk. Everyone needs to hear this.”

The first week of my sophomore year at Washington University, I attended a mandatory session for my major. Before stepping foot in a K-12 school, WashU students majoring in teacher education need to be well-versed in what to do if someone enters said school with a gun.

I understood the importance of the lecture, and I signed up willingly. But as the presenter offered strategies (Run, Hide, Fight, Report), I couldn’t help but think about my own experience. 

My high school in Wisconsin had two attempted school shootings. One my freshman year, one my senior year. I call them bookends.

I say “attempted” school shooting because no one was shot in the school. One gunman shot four people at his office; they thought his next stop was the high school, but he was killed by police first. The other ran before getting to the first gunshot, but we didn’t know that until hours later…when school resumed as usual.

I think about these experiences often. I dream about them, too. And yet, I chose to study to become a teacher, and I found myself reliving everything in that lecture hall of my own free will.

Statistically, very few people will ever experience a school shooting, and even fewer (approximately 1 in 614 million) will die from one on any given day. However, that does not necessarily alleviate the impacts of gun violence in schools; one national poll found that 57% of teenagers “worry about a shooting happening at their school,” and 63% of parents express similar concerns.

These statistics may be higher in states with more lax gun laws, including Missouri. The state lacks all of what gun safety advocates call “foundational” gun violence prevention laws, including requiring permits for concealed carry, running background checks or needing purchase permits, and ensuring child access prevention.

On a national level, a study published last year found that about 40% of youth said they have at least “somewhat easy” access to a firearm. 21% reported having “very easy” access. The majority of school shooters access guns from within their household, making this a concerning statistic.

In response to the rising unease of students, many schools have hired school resource officers (SROs) to mitigate threats. But do in-school police prevent school shootings?

In an analysis of policing in schools, researchers found “no evidence that SROs reduce more serious gun-related offenses,” but significant evidence that SROs have a negative impact on the schooling experiences of marginalized students. For example, students who are Black, male, or have one or more disabilities are more likely to be suspended, expelled, referred to police, and arrested when their schools have an SRO. 

While the majority of school shootings have been carried out by white male shooters in suburban schools, it is urban students of color who pay the price. Increased suspensions and expulsions greatly limit school engagement, raising dropout rates. On a social level, no-tolerance discipline encourages exclusion of students and can negatively impact belonging in schools.

The other commonly-suggested solution to school shootings is active shooter drills, but there is no significant evidence that these drills prevent violence on campuses. There is evidence, however, that they may cause “substantial emotional and psychological harms.”

Researchers interviewed K-12 students from across the nation on their reaction to active shooter drills. Many reported “a range of acute and intermediate-term stress reactions which are well-established precursors to posttraumatic stress disorder.” When schools aren’t transparent with their students about the “code red” being a drill, these impacts are worsened. 

This information isn’t new; the National Association of School Psychologists and National Association of School Resource Officers have published best practices for active shooter drills since 2014. 

The odds of being in a school shooting are low, but here’s the bottom line: the mental health impacts of the U.S. culture on school shootings (including gun violence in communities, dramatic drills, threats, school policing, racial profiling, and “attempts” like the ones I experienced) is greater than we can understand. There is very little scholarship on how this is impacting students today, and I’m concerned.

This could be due to the fact post-traumatic feelings are difficult to measure. A report from Center of Violence Prevention summed this up by saying, “Perhaps the most disturbing effects of school shootings are the feeling of on-going danger that permeates schools where they have occurred. The school’s climate and sense of community are profoundly damaged.”

I want to be able to see my sister’s high school play without shaking in the audience. I want to be able to visit my old teachers. I want to become a teacher myself. And yet, I never feel safe.

Students are living under threat, and we need to take proactive measures for those who cannot. Through proposed laws that limit child access to firearms and strengthen background checks, we can reach a point where educators and students don’t have to worry about their safety. 

I shouldn’t have to learn to Run, Hide, Fight. It shouldn’t be recommended for me to attend a seminar on caring for gunshot wounds. I am a future teacher. 

No student should fear getting an education.

Call your representatives. Educate yourself and sign petitions in favor of the GOSAFE, PLAN, and Kid PROOF Acts. Stop gun marketers from advertising to kids. These tasks only take a few minutes. Forgetting takes a lifetime.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.