2018 has been a difficult year for principals, school leaders, and all those tasked with ensuring the safety of students and educators. Two of the deadliest school shootings in American history took place in the span of just a few months in Parkland, FL, and Santa Fe, TX, this year.
The nation watched in horror as these tragedies unfolded and collectively wondered how schools could continue to endure the same devastating violence again and again. We were left questioning whether anything would be different from the responses to shootings in Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and far too many others.
Schools are still statistically some of the safest places in the country, but the rise in violence this year cannot be ignored. Including the Santa Fe High incident in May, there have been more injuries (66) and deaths (40) from school shootings already in 2018 than in all of 2017, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. CNN reported that by late May, the U.S. was averaging one school shooting per week and was on pace to exceed the total number of incidents from the previous year.
However, 2018 saw more than heartbreak in response to shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe. Led by surviving students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, young people around the country rallied in a nationwide movement for school safety and against gun violence. They demanded action from elected officials to better protect them and their peers, and they were joined in droves by educators and other concerned Americans. Hundreds of thousands traveled to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate in the March for Our Lives event on March 24, with at least 450 other marches taking place in all 50 states.
Long an advocate for policy reform that will better protect our schools and communities from gun violence, NASSP joined the voice of empowered students across the country in those efforts. The association issued heralded guidance to principals on handling walkouts and other protests, encouraging school leaders to create a safe space for students’ free expression while maintaining the integrity of school rules and policy. NASSP members were mobilized to contact their members of Congress en masse and demand action on school safety policy, including better funding for violence intervention and prevention programs; a stronger focus on mental health resources and supports in schools; and stronger laws to keep weapons out of the hands of individuals who have clearly demonstrated a danger to themselves or others. The NASSP Policy & Advocacy Center also hosted a briefing event on Capitol Hill at which school leaders who had experienced shootings in their buildings told their stories to members of Congress and advocated for policy change.
Thanks to the nationwide mobilization of students, educators, and concerned families raising their voices, Congress was compelled to take meaningful action after the Parkland shooting. One of the bills that NASSP strongly advocated for—the STOP School Violence Act of 2018 (H.R. 4909/S. 2495)—was rolled into the 2018 omnibus spending bill. This bipartisan legislation authorized $75 million in the first year and $100 million in annual funding for a total of 10 years to enact new violence prevention programs in schools and additional school security resources. Congress also passed the Fix NICS Act (H.R. 4434/S. 2135) in the omnibus to incentivize states and government agencies to do a better job submitting prohibiting records into the FBI’s background check system for gun purchases.
Much Remains to Be Done
Despite these positive legislative improvements, much more remains to be done. In response to the Parkland shooting, the Trump administration announced the formation of a Federal Commission on School Safety at the U.S. Department of Education, tasked with identifying new, innovative solutions and issuing recommendations and actions to protect our schools. NASSP and other national education organizations were encouraged by the administration’s initial attention to the issue, but by the time the Santa Fe shooting occurred—three months after Parkland—the commission had made little progress. The department failed to provide opportunities for education groups, stakeholders, and practitioners in the field to meaningfully participate in the process as it sought to develop new policy and recommendations. In May, NASSP joined a coalition of organizations to send Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos a letter imploring her to engage educators and stakeholders in the process, and we have continued advocating that the Trump administration listen to school leaders and those who know best what their schools and students need to be safe.
Other positions taken by the administration in response to Parkland are also serious cause for concern. DeVos has indicated support for scrapping an Obama-era policy designed to reduce racial disparities in school discipline and curb hasty or unwarranted suspensions and expulsions. Acting against conclusive research on the subject, this short-sighted decision would lead to more racial inequity and fewer educational opportunities for struggling students, while doing nothing to better protect schools from violence. President Donald Trump also signaled support for arming teachers and other school personnel. NASSP and all major national education groups have denounced any efforts to put more guns into classrooms or to arm anyone in schools other than specially trained school resource officers. These groups believe that, contrary to the intent of such policies, they would leave educators and students more vulnerable to accidents and violence rather than safer from them.
What has become clear following all the tragedies of 2018 is that gun violence in schools will not stop without strong, decisive action and policy change. We can—and should—demand more from our elected officials, because weekly school shootings are unacceptable. While there will certainly be differences of opinion on policy, we can all agree that more needs to be done to protect our educators and students. NASSP will continue to support evidence-based violence-prevention solutions, and principals should continue to make their voices heard as they advocate with policymakers. Together, we can honor the lives of those taken from us far too soon and help ensure that the schools of today and tomorrow are safe places where all students can learn.
Greg Waples is the senior manager of state engagement and outreach at NASSP.