Lessons from Parkland: 6 big things we’ve learned about student safety, school security and resilience since the tragic 2018 massacre
Mark Keierleber | February 13, 2019
Valentine’s Day is typically a celebration of love, but the holiday in 2018 will go down in history as a moment of hate, national mourning — and resilience.
That afternoon in Parkland, Florida, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school, killing 14 students and three adults. Like other mass school shootings — from Columbine to Sandy Hook — the tragedy had immediate ramifications. Locally, leaders came under fierce criticism for a slow police response and the school’s inability to keep the suspected gunman off campus. Nationally, politicians and school leaders faced mounting pressure to quickly adopt laws designed to thwart the next tragedy.
On the one-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting, here are six big lessons we’ve learned about student safety, school security and resilience:
1. For better or for worse, mass shootings drove school safety policy
From Washington roundtables to small-town school board meetings, policymakers responded to Parkland with urgency. Officials at all levels of government, from school superintendents to President Donald Trump, turned their attention to student safety.
Receiving perhaps the most attention were efforts to arm educators and “harden” campuses in the form of school-based police officers, additional perimeter fencing, and surveillance cameras. Though efforts to fortify campuses have been underway for decades, largely following the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, Parkland intensified those efforts.
School security is now a nearly $3 billion industry, producing wares largely absent research that would show whether or not they’re effective. Among the next-generation surveillance technology companies marketed to school districts in 2018 are surveillance cameras with artificial intelligence. Schools also doubled down on initiatives to monitor students’ social media activity, extending youth surveillance beyond the schoolhouse door.
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In August, The 74’s Carolyn Phenicie found legislatures in at least 26 states poured about a billion dollars into school safety efforts in the wake of Parkland. Though the bulk of that money funded enhanced physical security and school-based police, states also opened their wallets to fund mental health initiatives, emergency planning and anonymous tip lines.
Federal lawmakers also injected new money into school safety efforts. Officials passed the STOP School Violence Act, which authorizes more than $1 billion in grant funding over the next decade for school violence prevention, including anonymous reporting systems and threat assessments.
Trump formed the Federal Commission on School Safety which, in December, released a comprehensive report offering wide-ranging recommendations on strategies to keep kids safe, including a revision of Obama-era guidance encouraging school districts to reduce their reliance on suspensions and expulsions. The document emphasized defensive measures like arming school staff, increasing school-based police, and beefing up physical security. In a nod to conservatives, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the bulk of efforts to address student safety should occur on the local level.
2. Lawmakers passed new gun laws, but the issue remains as politically divisive as ever
As Parkland student survivors pushed federal lawmakers on gun control, officials at the state level responded with a flurry of new firearm restrictions. State legislatures have approved some 70 new gun laws since last February — a response that exceeds action following the 2012 mass school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. That’s according to a gun control group, which identified new firearm regulations across 26 states.
In seven states, legislators passed laws expanding background checks for firearm purchases and 11 states approved laws prohibiting gun ownership among people convicted of domestic violence. Lawmakers in eight states and the District of Columbia passed “red flag” laws that allow officials to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed unsafe to themselves or others. In four states, laws approved in 2018 added new gun purchase restrictions for young people.
On the federal level, the Justice Department announced a formal ban on “bump stocks,” which allow semiautomatic weapons to be fired more rapidly and came under scrutiny after the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in several states handed victories to gun rights activists. In Florida, a new law allows K-12 school personnel to carry guns on campus and, in South Dakota, a new law allows firearms in private schools and churches. In Idaho and Wyoming, lawmakers enacted “stand your ground” provisions, which codify the right to use deadly force for self-defense.
3. Parents grew more fearful about their children’s safety, but …
In 2018, more parents said they feared for the safety of their children at school. In fact, the number of fearful parents has nearly tripled over the past five years, according to a 2018 poll by PDK International.
The poll found about a third of parents said they feared for their child’s physical safety at school, a significant jump from 12 percent who said the same in 2013. In efforts to keep kids safe on campus, about three-quarters of parents in 2018 said they supported armed guards, mental health screenings, and metal detectors.
That parent fear could contribute to support for strict gun control policies. A majority of Americans say gun laws should be stricter, according to an October poll by the Pew Research Center. Though opinions differ significantly across party lines, 57 percent of American adults say firearm restrictions should be tightened, while 11 percent say gun laws should be less strict. Pew did find some common ground between Democrats and Republicans. Regardless of party, Americans overwhelmingly support laws that restrict firearm access for people with mental illnesses and those on no-fly or watch lists.
More than two-thirds of Republicans told Pew they favor rules allowing K-12 school staff to carry guns on campus. Republicans won a victory on this issue in 2018, when the White House released its school safety report. The Federal Commission on School Safety encouraged school districts to arm “specially selected and trained school personnel.”
The majority of Americans have supported additional gun control for several years, and while a Reuters/Ipsos poll found a bump in support following the Parkland tragedy, the numbers returned to pre-Parkland levels after just a few months.
4. … School shootings remain statistically rare
School shootings, especially those with multiple casualties, draw significant attention. Despite their impact, they’re also statistically rare.
Throughout 2018, The 74 set out to track all firearm incidents on school campuses that resulted in injury or death. We found at least 50 people were killed and 88 were injured in firearm incidents at K-12 schools and colleges.
But other fatal tragedies, like being struck by lightning, are statistically more likely. Fear of school shootings can cloud objective decision-making, argues David Ropeik, a former Harvard University professor and a consultant on risk perception. In his own analysis, he puts the odds that a K-12 student will be shot and killed at a public school at roughly 1 in 614 million.
Over the 12-month period since the Parkland shooting, nearly 1,200 young Americans were killed in firearm incidents, according to an analysis by McClatchy and The Trace, a nonprofit news website. The carnage extends far beyond school shootings and includes murder-suicides, drive-by shootings, and accidents.
For years, school tragedies have accounted for a single-digit percentage of youth homicide and suicide deaths. Over the past two decades, fewer than 3 percent of youth homicides and fewer than 1 percent of youth suicides occurred at school, according to a recent National Center for Education Statistics report.
In fact, federal data indicate public schools have actually become safer in recent years.
5. Youth rocked the vote but failed to shake the NRA
After becoming household names for their advocacy, Parkland student survivors like Emma González and David Hogg set out on a national campaign to mobilize young voters — and to knock National Rifle Association-backed politicians out of power.
About 31 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the midterm elections in November, an impressive 10 percentage-point jump from the previous midterms, in 2014. In fact, youth voter turnout was higher in 2018 than in any midterm election over the past two decades. The turnout was pivotal for Democratic House candidates, according to a post-election analysis by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
Youth efforts to snub the NRA, however, were less fruitful. According to the “NRA Money Bot,” a Twitter account created by The Trace to track campaign spending, 107 candidates backed by the NRA won their races during the midterm election while 46 NRA-backed candidates lost. In Florida, the Parkland activists faced resounding defeat, with pro-gun candidates for governor and U.S. Senate emerging victorious.
6. Survivors shared inspiring stories of resilience
Since the shooting, student survivors launched a national movement to bolster youth civic engagement and combat gun violence. From school walkouts to a national bus tour, the students rallied around a common cause. The 74 conducted interviews with multiple students, parents and educators who demonstrated inspiring resilience in the face of significant trauma.
Among them are Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teachers Ivy Schamis and Melody Herzfeld.
Schamis teaches a Holocaust history class and was comparing current events to Nazi Germany when the gunman opened fire on her classroom. Two of her students were killed. Now, the course comes with new meaning for Schamis. She told The 74 last year that she’s confident her students will use the tragedy to move forward in a positive light.
“I really don’t think most of them will be bystanders. I think they will speak out for what’s right,” she said. “How many people see things that are wrong and just look the other way? I don’t see these students doing that.”
Meanwhile, drama students and their teacher, Melody Herzfeld, viewed art as a way to heal. The drama class was rehearsing for an upcoming children’s musical when the shots rang out, and they took shelter in a nearby storage closet.
Herzfeld and her students could have canceled the performance just two months after the shooting, but decided “the show must go on.” Their resilience, and their decision to perform in the face of adversity, is featured in a new HBO documentary, Song of Parkland.
“They were so happy that there was hope,” Herzfeld said. “Not everything is gone. It was the one thing they had to focus on that could keep them in their happy moment and say, ‘I’m beneficial here. I’m good in this moment.’”