Gary J. Stein: Is gun violence in our schools a solvable problem?

In 1997, Dr. David Satcher proclaimed that violence was a public health issue, and therefore trackable by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in order to look for solutions. Although violence is considered a non-communicable hazard, the community reaction to violent events can be contagious. This is especially troubling when the immediate reaction creates solutions in the wrong direction.

In December, we will mark the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. There was an immediate cry of outrage, which quieted long before any true action had been taken. That does not mean that the problem does not exist. Once again, we have deferred taking steps to fix the problem until the next disaster occurs.

But what is the solution? The answer is that there is no simple solution, since the problem of gun violence has too many causes and different scenarios require different actions.

If there is any benefit to letting time pass after a tragedy, it would be that time allows us to think and respond, instead of just react.

And so it is with decisions our schools face when dealing with gun violence.  As school safety expert Michael Dorn stated after the Newtown tragedy, “We must be thoughtful.”

I agree with many of the recommendations that Dorn gave to Hillsborough County’s School District, for which the district paid him $8,500. The kneejerk reaction that came before Dorn was hired was to spend almost $3 million in discretionary spending for armed guards in all the elementary schools. This followed the similar recommendation of Wayne LaPierre, the president of the National Rifle Association, an organization that has shown a greater allegiance to the gun industry than to their own members. Many, if not most, are responsible gun owners.  LaPierre’s recommendation would be enough for me to reject the idea, but the school board was “thoughtful” and rejected the expenditure back in January.  Still, that did not stop Superintendent MaryEllen Elia from seeking federal money to fund the plan.

Reactions across the nation ran the gamut, from multiple lock-down drills, to a school that taught kids to throw pencils and books at the intruder and a high school in Illinois that had a drill where armored police officers shot blanks over the heads of fleeing students. This is very reminiscent of the “Duck and Cover” drills of my youth (which would have done nothing to protect us from a nuclear bomb attack), but it is also akin to teaching airline passengers  how to react to the minute chance of a plane crash by temporarily cutting off the engines and making a plane dive.

The possibility of a school invasion is far less likely than a plane crash, and Dorn praised the school district for its current safety systems and not “throwing a ton of money at the situation.” He did, however, recommend more armed guards, and here is where we disagree.

Two factors need to be addressed when considering these options — the financial aspect and the psychological one. Take a look at the numbers. Based on a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of the 2009-2010 school year, the odds of a young person ages 5 to 18 being the victim of a homicide at school, on their way to school, or at a school-sponsored event was 1 in 2.5 million. You may as well have everybody in the school buy a Powerball ticket. On average, less than 10 students per year fall victim to gun violence, and each one is a tragedy.

However, 4,600 young people (between the ages of 10 and 24) commit suicide in the United States each year, and about 2,000 of these suicides involve firearms. Another 5,000 young people are murdered, but very few in schools. Finally, 1,700 young people (between the ages of 0 and 17) die each year from neglect or abuse (80 percent of these are under 4 years of age).  These statistics change the narrative as to where funds would be best spent. Psychologically, studies have shown that armed guards in the school may give parents peace of mind, but the kids feel far less safe, given the visual proof that they must be protected with possibly deadly force.

We need to pursue the best options for our kids, with thoughtfulness and regard to the Hippocratic principle of, “above all, do no harm.”

Gary Stein

Author: Gary Stein

Gary J Stein, MPH has a Master’s degree in Public Health from Johns Hopkins and spent 2 decades in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tracking and educating on STD's, HIV and Tuberculosis. He also worked for several years in the Florida Department of Health, as Program Director for the Hillsborough Tobacco Control Program and Program Manager in the Office of Health Equity. He frequently contributes to the Huffington Post and advocates for Health Care Reform. Last legislative session, he testified in front of the Florida House and Senate committee on the Affordable Care Act. He currently is the Executive Director of Health Equity Connections and Accountable Care, Inc. (HECAC), a startup 501©3 non-profit organization dedicated to connecting people to wellness resources for better health, better healthcare and reduced costs.

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2 Comments

  1. i hope there’s some breaking news here too!!!

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