February 23, 2018

Cleaveland: Can we prevent school shootings?

Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Shortly before 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 23, a 15-year-old male student pulled a handgun from his backpack and began shooting fellow students in the commons area of his rural Kentucky high school. A 15-year-old girl died at the scene. A 15-year-old boy succumbed to injuries after air evacuation to a Nashville hospital. Twelve students suffered gunshot wounds; three were shot in the head, another in the chest and abdomen. The fate of the wounded has not been released. Five students suffered injuries as they fled from the scene. The shooter surrendered to police without resistance.

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin cited a “cultural problem” as the cause of the shooting, blaming the influence of widespread violence in video games, movies and television.

Months will pass before a full investigation into the shooting will be complete. How did the assailant obtain his weapon? What were his motives? Is he psychotic or depressed? Had he been bullied at the school? Were metal detectors in place at school entry points? Did the school have a security officer?

By the time these questions are answered, this school shooting will have been largely forgotten by everyone save for the victims, their families and friends and students attending the high school. Years passed before all the information related to the Columbine High School murders of 1999 became available to the public. Without detailed analysis of school attacks, we cannot take steps to reduce the likelihood of future tragedies.

The Kentucky attack was one of 12 shootings in or on school property between January 1 and February 1 of this year.

A 14-year-old killed himself with a gun smuggled into his school. A 16-year-old boy wounded a 15-year-old girl in the cafeteria of a Texas school. An unidentified person shot out a window on a school bus carrying children in Iowa. No one was injured in exchanges of gunfire on campuses of a California university and a New Orleans school. On Feb. 1, a 12-year-old girl carried a semi-automatic weapon concealed in her backpack into her classroom. When she dropped the backpack to the floor, the weapon discharged, critically wounding a 15-year-old boy and shooting a 15-year-old girl in the arm.

Some of the wounded may never again have a normal life. Each will bear life-long physical and mental scars. Families will mourn lost loved ones. Families may face massive medical expenses related to treatment and rehabilitation of their wounded kin.

In the interval, 2013-15, 160 school shootings occurred in 38 states, according to www.everytownresearch.org. Fifty-three percent happened in K-12 schools; the rest took place on college or university campuses. In 95 incidents, the shooter killed or wounded at least one other person. On eight occasions, the shooter committed suicide. In 20 instances, the shooter either attempted or was successful at suicide without attacking other persons.

What can we do to reduce the risk of school shootings? Possibilities include:

» Metal-detectors. Every school must have a system to detect and thereby prevent weapons — both guns and knives — from being carried into school buildings. After-school sporting events and activities must be screened. Preventing weapons from being brought onto school grounds and parking lots is a problem with no ready solution. School buses present another challenge. Are metal detectors feasible for each bus? Can bus drivers manage the additional responsibility of detecting weapons?

» School safety officer. Placement of such a person in every school is expensive, especially for school systems already struggling with tight budgets. In a sprawling building or on a campus with multiple buildings, a single officer would not be able to assure safety.

» Armed teachers. How many teachers would want to assume responsibility for training and for keeping a firearm at their desk? And what of the risk of injury to bystanders if a teacher had to fire at an armed student or intruder?

» Public education on firearm safety. This must be directed through the media to parents and other adults who have firearms in their homes. The message is simple: All weapons must be secured so that children do not have access to them except under parental supervision.

» Anti-bullying and anti-hazing campaigns. These must be vigorously pursued at all grade levels and in all teams and extracurricular activities. Training in techniques of mindfulness should be included in the health curriculum.

Do we act and encourage our elected officials to act? Or do we wait for news of the next shooting?

Clif Cleaveland, M.D., is a retired internist and former president of the American College of Physicians. Email him at ccleaveland@timesfreepress.com.

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