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As we mark yet another anniversary of a school massacre — this time the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado — it is clear that gun violence in our schools is not a threat that has diminished, but rather is something that is on the minds of most principals every day.

John Rogers

In the years between the school shootings in Columbine and Parkland, according to one analysis by Washington Post reporters John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich, there were shootings at 193 schools, affecting more than 187,000 enrolled students.

Today, the fear and impact of shootings in the nation’s schools has become all too real.

That reality is evident in a new nationally representative survey of 505 high school principals conducted by the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, which I direct. In the survey, high-school principals from California to Connecticut said the threat of gun violence “has captured the most attention,” represents the “largest stress,” and poses the “gravest concerns.” In the words of one principal, “it’s probably the first thing I think of every morning and every night. You know, God forbid, but, what if.”

It is, as one principal says, a “huge issue.” More than nine in ten principals say their school had been impacted by the threat of gun violence at school or in the surrounding community. Principals say that students are concerned and lose focus in class or miss school altogether due to the threat of gun violence. More than 8 in 10 principals said that parents and community members also express concerns.

While schools with large proportion of students of color are most affected, the threat is felt across rural, suburban and urban communities and across all demographic and regional categories. A principal of a predominantly white high school in Montana shared that even though three-quarters of his students regularly go hunting, every student who participated in a focus group following Parkland agreed, “Of course, I’m afraid that this could happen here.”

One in five principals we interviewed report incidents with firearms on campus, an experience that one principal says “scares (her) all the time.” One third of those interviewed report threats on social media or elsewhere of mass shootings, bombings or both during the previous school year. A palpable fear and constant awareness that “those threats are real” remains, says one California principal.

Two decades after Columbine, principals say they spend more time addressing problems associated with the threats of gun violence than any other challenge they currently face. Not only must they respond to threats on social media or incidents that require investigation and follow up, almost all principals report talking with students in an effort to reduce concerns and working to connect students with counseling or other services.

Principals are also deeply engaged in efforts to prevent school shootings, with most focused on efforts to “harden” and secure their campuses. This high-cost strategy typically entails purchasing security cameras, electronic doors, safety locks on teachers’ classrooms, safety coating on glass and stronger windows. And many schools have begun to limit entry and exit to one “secure” site on campus and to train educators and students how to respond to the threat of school shootings. In 2018, California approved new legislation (AB 1747), expanding school safety plans to include procedures for active shooter situations and requiring schools to conduct annual active shooter drills. The state also approved AB 3205 requiring school construction or modernization projects to include plans for door locks that allow classroom doors to be locked from the inside.

But as we remember the students of Columbine and the far too many others that have fallen in school shootings since then, it’s time for schools and the nation’s policymakers to consider a different approach to preventing gun violence. A meaningful way to mark the tragic anniversary of Columbine would be to heed the words of one Michigan principal who told us that strategies that support students’ psychological well-being and encourage them to look out for and “take care of other kids” are “more important than the hard, physical stuff like bulletproof glass and clear backpacks.”

A system of safe and relationship-centered schools is best achieved through a public health model that emphasizes integrated systems and supports that promote safety and locate and address problems at their source. Such a plan should also ensure that schools have the counselors, psychologists and social workers needed to identify students in need of counseling and provide mental health services, and consider reasonable strategies aimed at restricting access to the most dangerous and destructive weapons.

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John Rogers is a Professor of Education at UCLA and the Director of the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

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