Kids Brought Guns to School at Least 392 Times Last Year. Here’s What Experts Say We Should Do About It

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Just one week after a shooter opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people, at least five kids brought guns to school. 

That week, the first of the academic year, guns were found in students’ backpacks in Arizona, California, Indiana, and Massachusetts—where a young boy brought a loaded gun to his day care

While there are no official statistics for the 2018-2019 school year, at least 392 incidents of kids bringing guns to school were reported in the media during that time. But prior data suggests this number is likely much higher.

During the 2016-2017 academic year, the National Center for Education Statistics recorded 3,272 instances where kids brought guns to school. The Center has not released any statistics since.

“There’s a major problem with reporting on kids who bring guns to school,” Sarah Zelazny, a Pittsburgh-based Gun Violence Prevention Advocate told Fortune. “We don’t even know how pervasive the problem is.” 

That’s because public schools aren’t properly reporting the incidents, likely due to the fact there is no nationally enforced reporting system, experts say.

But although we tend to mostly hear about gun violence in schools in cases of mass shootings, they’re still incredibly rare. Between 1996 and 2018, there were eight mass school shootings—or incidents involving four or more deaths, excluding the shooter—according to research by Northeastern University.

Even so, experts agree there are ways that schools can intervene and prevent violence, rather than just preparing for it. 

Gun storage laws

About 4.6 million U.S. children live in homes with a loaded, unlocked firearm and many of them have accessed the weapons without their parents knowing.

“We need better social norms about the responsibilities that come along with gun ownership,” said Cassandra Crifasi, the deputy director of the Center for Gun Policy & Research at Johns Hopkins. “Everyone is focused on the rights they have, but not the responsibility.” 

The rights of gun owners are often at the center of the debate around gun violence in the U.S. But experts say the conversation around preventing that violence doesn’t have to be so politically polarized. 

“One of the most important things that communities can do is to normalize and depoliticize the way we communicate about guns,” Zelazny said, later adding, “We aren’t talking about taking anyone’s guns away, we are talking about how to be responsible with guns and not let kids get their hands on them.”

Organizers believe that in the best cases, school boards can implement policies in their schools and also educate parents about how to safely store their firearms. 

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Unified School District passed a resolution to send students home with information about gun safety laws in California. The resolution would require a parent or guardian to read and sign the letter acknowledging they are aware of state gun laws, and the consequences of irresponsible gun storage to a child’s safety. 

“This resolution is an innovative way to ensure parents know just how crucial it is that guns are stored responsibly in the home,” Jessica Stamen, a volunteer with the California chapter of Moms Demand Action, an organization working to reduce gun violence, said in a statement. “California law requires responsible storage of firearms, but these laws are only effective if parents know the law.” 

Gun violence prevention experts agree the biggest reason kids are taking guns into their schools is because they have access to them in the first place.

“You have so many children and teenagers who live in homes where there are unsecured guns,” Chelsea Parsons, the vice president of gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress told Fortune. “So what these kinds of incidents draw attention to in my mind is the need to have much more robust education, and perhaps more robust laws with how gun owners are storing their firearms to prevent kids from getting access to them.” 

In 2019, there are no federal laws outlining standards for locking firearms in the home. At the state level, Massachusetts is the only state requiring firearms be stored with a lock, though California, Connecticut, and New York impose the same requirement in some cases, according to the Giffords Law Center

Likewise, there are currently no federal Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws, which would encourage gun owners to safely store firearms in the home by holding parents responsible if a child in their care gains unsupervised access to the weapon. There are 27 states and the District of Columbia with CAP laws that impose criminal liability on parents to varying degrees. 

California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C., impose criminal liability in cases where a child is likely to access a gun; whereas Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, and Rhode Island impose criminal liability if a child accessed a gun and used it against someone, causing death or serious injury, according to the Giffords Law Center.

Threat assessment programs

While some reactionary responses to mass shootings have called for arming teachers, or introducing police and armed resource officers in schools, studies show those efforts don’t actually make anyone safer, but instead can lead to more instances of guns being mishandled in schools. 

“A lot of the places where we’re seeing police in schools are in predominantly black and brown communities,” said Kina Collins, a community organizer running for Illinois’ 7th Congressional District seat. Collins grew up in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, a community with some of the highest rates of gun violence in the city. “It’s not a good investment to pour money into militarizing schools when we can teach students how to handle their emotions and behaviors.”

Experts and advocates agree one way to prevent gun violence in schools is to put in place threat assessment programs, which can help schools identify students who are at risk of committing violence and getting them the help they need. Students who bring guns to school might exhibit warning signs, but there aren’t always existing avenues for school officials to act or intervene. 

According to Marleen Wong, the senior vice dean of the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, threat assessment models are a key component of an effective violence prevention model. Models like this might also include teaching kids coping skills, and conflict mediation, according to Wong. 

“Social workers, counselors, and school psychologists are absolutely essential in some schools where risk factors for bringing guns to schools are pretty rampant in a community or neighborhood,” she said.  

A report from the American Federation of Teachers and Everytown for Gun Safety notes that threat assessment programs “consist of multi-disciplinary teams that are specifically trained to intervene at the earliest warning signs of potential violence and divert those who would do harm to themselves or others to appropriate treatment.” 

The most effective models would include identifying potential threats of violence, determining if a student has access to firearms, and ensuring that the student has sufficient access to counseling, according to Collins.

“You can’t just cure violence after a bullet strikes someone,” she said. “We have to treat gun violence as a public health epidemic. If we don’t, we’re only putting a bandaid over a bullet hole.” 

Kids right now are growing up in a world that doesn’t always feel safe. They’re “experiencing higher levels of trauma just by existing in the world,” said Zelazny. 

But they are also on the frontlines of community organizing efforts to prevent gun violence, both in schools and their own communities. 

Student activism

After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., students there mobilized to build a national movement. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country joined in the March for Our Lives in March 2018, where young people demanded an end to gun violence in their schools.

More recently, the student activists introduced a six-point plan to address gun violence as a public health issue that would include changing the standards of gun ownership and holding the gun lobby and industry accountable. 

GoodKids MadCity (GKMC), a Chicago-based community organizing group led by youth of color and founded after the Parkland shooting also seeks to address the gun violence they see in their communities.

The group provides support to youth affected by gun violence, while organizing against the systemic causes of violence. GKMC also led the charge against former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $95 million police academy. Organizers said the money should go toward supporting mental health programs, instead. 

These efforts are building momentum and creating community-based change by prioritizing the people most affected by gun violence, experts and advocates said, but institutional changes are still necessary: School boards need more support and funding for trauma-informed resources, and companies that are directly funding firearm manufacturers need to be held responsible, too.

“We put so much pressure on individuals and communities and schools to make changes, but it needs to be top down, too,” said Zelazny. “Corporate America, we’re looking at you—and the government—to make better policies to protect communities.” 

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