In 1999, I was a high school student attending a school near Columbine High School. I was a mere few miles away from the tragedy that changed the way many schools view security. I remember being in Ms. Race’s math class, just after lunch, as the loudspeaker called all students to report to the library at the center of the school. We weren’t told much, just that there had been a shooting at a school nearby and that we needed to wait for further news. An hour later, we were all sent home.
After that day, school security was handled in a whole new way. There had never been a high school shooting so deadly, and the relatively high socioeconomic standing of the area further solidified the message to the country that several things needed to change.
School security continues to grow each year. Metal detectors, doors with key codes that are locked at all hours, and student sign-in/sign-out procedures are commonplace across America with “stranger policies” being the latest trend in precautions. While these things are all helpful to decrease violence in schools, perhaps the root of the issue, often a mental health concern, is being overlooked and “stranger awareness” may just be a waste of time and resources.
While I appreciate the effort to increase safety when it comes to strange people abducting students, this crime is not the more common tragedy in schools. More common than a previously unknown person committing an act against students, faculty, and staff are acts of violence by current or former students and staff. And their aggression typically comes from a mental health issue.
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Disgruntled staff or ostracized students are often the perpetrators of school crimes. When examining killings in schools, it’s rarely a stranger that commits these violent acts.
The cause of the massacre at Columbine was, reportedly, bullying combined with mental illness. The two students who took the lives of many others before they took their own had been taunted, teased, and ridiculed for years, and at least one of these young men was on an inappropriate psychiatric medication. In Colorado, bullying is still an issue and at my old high school alone, there is a suicide attributed to bullying, on average, every other year.
Suicides and accidental deaths due to motor vehicle accidents, drug and alcohol use, or dangerous behavior like the “choking game” are far more common than school shootings or kidnappings. While “zero tolerance policies” have been created to decrease weapon, drug, and alcohol possession in addition to programs to reduce bullying and maltreatment of others, with budget cuts and skeleton staffs, schools do not appear to be experiencing any decrease in these incidents.
Last week, a current student at my former high school took her own life. In the four years I studied there, I experienced three losses due to suicide and accidental death. I can’t help but wonder, if schools could add staff while empowering teachers and parents to play a more active role in the mental health of their students, would there be angry staff and students to commit such crimes? Would school security still be such an issue?