Gun Violence in Schools: A Roundtable Discussion
Moderated by Catherine Squires and Mary Marchan | February 8, 2023
In 2022, there were at least 300 school shootings in the U.S. It is heartbreaking and terrifying all at once. The concurrent Covid-19 pandemic and the epidemic of gun violence in schools have exposed the vulnerabilities of our education system. The safety and well-being of students and teachers seem precarious at best.
What explains the scourge of school shootings, and how can we prevent future shootings? Media pundits and politicians blame “lone wolves” for gun violence. Conservative politicians’ rail against gun control measures as a threat to gun rights with little to say about the right to health and safety for the victims and survivors of gun violence.
Measures that promote the well-being of students – such as Title IX protections for transgender students, comprehensive sex education, and access to anti-racist curriculum – are under attack. Simultaneously, the right to own and carry weapons is being strengthened. Many conservative politicians propose arming teachers and expanding law enforcement presence as the solution. As the horrifying shooting at Uvalde revealed, even the presence of heavily armed police didn’t reduce the death count.
In this roundtable, we asked two experts on gender and race, gun violence, surveillance, and schools about how we should approach the epidemic of school shootings. What is left out of mainstream reactions to gun violence in schools? How can we center the experiences of our most vulnerable students – BIPOC girls and queer, trans, and gender non-conforming students?
Marika Pfefferkorn is a community advocate and the Executive Director of the Midwest Center for School Transformation; she has over twenty years of experience working to transform education through a liberatory lens. Dr. Ruth DeFoster is a scholar and journalist whose work focuses on media constructions of mass shootings, crime, and identity. She is the author of Terrorizing the Masses: Identity, Mass Shootings, and the Media Construction of Terror.
Moderators: We’ve seen many schools increase security measures in response to gun violence. Does increased surveillance in schools add to the fear of violence? Who does this surveillance protect? Who is it surveilling?
Marika Pfefferkorn: The long and, sadly, growing list of school shootings has again sparked conversations about how to make schools safer. These conversations have [moved] toward the use of digital surveillance tools.
Student Activity Monitoring Software (SAMS) is a technology that monitors school-managed devices by tracking website visits and content that is flagged as sensitive or potentially criminal. SAMS challenges our understanding of civil rights and the right to privacy. Companies like Gaggle and Navigate360 promise K-12 school districts and college campuses that their artificial intelligence-powered systems will flag students who are engaging in “at risk” behaviors that could lead to self-harm or harm of others. However, these systems are also flagging speech and behavior of students from vulnerable groups. For instance:
● An LGBTQ+ student was outed to their parents by their school district
● Feminist groups at UNC-Chapel Hill found out that authorities used Geofeedia to search keywords and organization titles related to reproductive justice protests.
● An investigation by The 74 found that Gaggle not only monitored student activity during the school day, but also followed students home, reviewing their activity at night, on weekends, and school holidays.
The effectiveness of SAMS is questionable; no independent research exists on whether it truly prevents harm. Documents and interviews gathered by journalists suggest that Gaggle, for instance, flags a wide range of student expression that should not be labeled as “concerning.” The technology doesn’t seem to be able to discern between things students write to fulfill an assignment, like using the word “depressed” in an online discussion already monitored by a teacher, bombastic teenage use of profane speech, and truly concerning behavior. Many of these social media and email monitoring programs are implemented without any consultation with or notification of parents, let alone students.
Why are so many school leaders investing in surveillance software even though there is little evidence that they prevent any kind of violence, let alone gun violence? Investigations by journalists, the ACLU, and EPIC suggest that rather than use flagged text to direct resources to students in crisis, many schools deploy social media and email monitoring in concert with law enforcement to surveil activists and try to quell protests.
Take Minneapolis: Following the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis school district severed ties with the Minneapolis Police Department and ended a 15-year contract that placed school “resource officers” in schools. At the time, this was hailed as a progressive move. It was later discovered that Minneapolis had contracted with Gaggle, a digital surveillance tool that monitors student content on school-provided technology.
Ruth DeFoster: Schools are not just surveilling students, they are training students to live in a state of hyper-vigilance, evidenced by the rise of active shooter drills
Fear of gun violence—and especially mass shootings—has driven many schools to hold active shooter drills, preparing schoolchildren for the possibility of a mass casualty event. These drills, well-intentioned as they may be, do far more harm than good. Experts warn that shooter drills can traumatize students, and many students themselves report widespread fear and anxiety about mass shootings as a result.
It’s crucial to balance the fear of horrific mass shooting incidents with the actual risk of dying in a firearm incident at school, which is statistically very small: about 10 million to one, roughly the same odds as being killed by lightning or dying in an earthquake. Simply put, students are exponentially more likely to experience the trauma of shooter drills than they are to experience actual gun violence at school.
And what do children get out of active shooter drills? Certainly not a sense of control, safety, or security – a 2020 study found that almost two-thirds of students felt “unsafe, scared, helpless, or sad” due to active shooter drills. Some students, especially the youngest students, even have difficulty differentiating between a drill and a real crisis. Not only are active shooter drills unproven—there’s no evidence they are effective at keeping kids safe—but they are actively detrimental to children.
This is particularly true for students of color and other disadvantaged students, who already experience intersectional inequality in the classroom. According to the U.S. Department of Education, although Black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled for harassment or bullying in schools than their white peers, Black students are disproportionately far more likely to be victims of harassment or bullying on the basis on their race, sex, or disability than white students. Black students, and especially Black girls, are already more likely to endure stress, anxiety, profiling, and lack of adequate resources in school environments. Educators have an obligation not to exacerbate these inequities by layering the trauma of simulated mass murder atop endemic existing inequalities.
Moderators: Is the school response to gun violence exacerbating pre-existing gender, racial, and sexual inequalities? How might we understand these administrative responses to mass shootings as part of school-related gender-based violence?
Marika: What we are seeing in schools today is the mobilization of the threat of gun violence to justify more invasive surveillance technology that doesn’t turn off when students leave school.
These technologies are more likely to flag students who are gender nonconforming, BIPOC, or otherwise marginalized due to racial and gendered stereotypes built into the algorithms’ definition of threat. Proponents of SAMS technology [argue] that if SAMS is able to prevent one suicide or gun attack, the reduction of student privacy is worth it. However, experts in mental health suggest that this monitoring will erode trust in teachers, administrators, and school counselors.
And one wonders about the investment in a non-proven tech tool that can cost over $200,000 a year when there is a dire need for more mental health support for students who are struggling. Studies of mental health during the pandemic find significant gendered differences. Women in college reported “a more pronounced negative effect on… academics, social isolation, stress and mental health compared to male counterparts.” GLBTQ high school students were twice as likely as heterosexual students to report poor mental health. Moreover, as more girls—particularly BIPOC girls—are ensnared in the school to prison pipeline, social media monitoring may become another tool that pushes girls out of school and away from counseling resources.
Ruth: Students of color often have far fewer school resources than white students: they are more likely to be taught by less qualified teachers in schools with little funding. Notably, students of color are also significantly more likely to attend a school with a School Resource Officer (SRO), but no school counselor. This exacerbates an environment in which Black students in particular are subject to profiling and police surveillance rather than community-building.
Moderators: How would you like journalists and policymakers to report and respond to gun violence?
Ruth: One of the biggest mistakes journalists make is falling prey to “episodic” or one-off coverage of horrific acts of gun violence in schools.
Journalists need to relentlessly inform audiences that American gun laws are wildly, unacceptably permissive, telling the big-picture stories that span decades. The right time to talk about gun violence is all the time—not just after the latest mass shooting du jour.
In a country with more guns per capita than any country in the world, amid rising rates of violent crime, it’s easy to get inured. We cannot become complacent. Journalists must keep telling the human stories of loss and lay the blame where it belongs: at the feet of a powerful gun lobby and conservative politicians like Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, with the blood of millions on their hands.
Moderators: How can we increase resources and care for students and communities disproportionately affected by gun violence?
Marika: At a time when young people are already navigating so much, to [further survey] marginalized students will potentially silence emerging voices. SAMS technology might deter girls and young women from seeking connection and belonging for fear of ending up at greater risk of criminalization and isolation.
Ruth: Schools need to shift their approach. There are far less invasive safety steps that can be taken than active shooter drills. Most shootings are over in a matter of a few minutes; creating obstacles to slow down a shooting, like locked doors and two-step entries, are key.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends discussion-based exercises as an alternative to acting out shooter drills, and emphasizes that qualified counselors and psychologists should be available for all students to make space for fears and concerns.
As Marika pointed out, adequately staffing schools with counselors is crucial. The trauma of gun violence doesn’t go away when physical wounds heal. Addressing the emotional, physical, and social well-being of communities affected by violence is a complex process that requires investment from educators, frontline workers, law enforcement, community organizers, activists, and medical professionals. Communities of color, and especially girls and women, need flexibility from schools and workplaces, widespread emotional and psychological support from trained professionals, and greater buy-in from men to shoulder an equal burden of homemaking and child care.
Moderators: What would be effective methods to prevent mass shootings?
Ruth: The U.S. leads the developed world in mass shootings, and experiences rates of every kind of gun violence about 20 times higher than any other developed nation. The reason is simple: the U.S. leads the world in per capita gun ownership. The biggest obstacle to reducing gun violence in schools is the staggering number of weapons in the U.S. Without large-scale policy changes of the sort that other countries successfully put into place after mass shootings (gun buyback programs, outlawing military-style weapons, increased background checks), we are unlikely to see the tide of gun violence stemmed.
Mary Marchan is a PhD Candidate in the Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Catherine Squires is Professor Emerita of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota.
Photo Credits: “National School Walkout against gun violence” & “St. Paul, Minnesota, April 20, 2018 March 4 Our Lives” by Fibonacci Blue are licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse.