In the first ten days of July 2022, the US suffered through 33 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive. This is despite the fresh memory of May’s school shooting in Uvalde, TX, and the Congressional enactment of new gun legislation in June.
And in the longer view, the US has averaged a school shooting every month of every school year for the past 20+ years (see list). We’ll soon be starting on our second generation of students raised on active shooter drills and bullet-proof backpacks.
Clearly, public awareness and legislation are not the complete answer.
What more can communities do to reduce or eliminate school shootings?
Changing the Culture of School
Scarlett Lewis lost her six-year-old son Jesse in the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012, ten years ago.
In coming to grips with her loss, she chose a different route from revenge or tragedy, knowing that we will always be a step behind if we simply focus on the problem.
Instead, she focused on understanding how a teenager becomes a school shooter. Through her research and subsequent work with schools, Scarlett is convinced that if her son’s killer had access to loving school culture, he would not have turned violent.
“Kids that have a trusted adult, that are taught coping skills and social and emotional competence, kids that love and accept themselves, are not going to want to hurt themselves or others,” Lewis says. “Fostering those relationships and skills makes common sense and is also backed up by decades of research.”
SEL Builds Positive School Cultures
One proven way to build school cultures, and cultures at large, that counteract violence is through Social-Emotional Learning SEL.
SEL is a research-based approach to teaching important personal and interpersonal skills that are vital for success in school, career, relationships, and life.
These skills include
- Managing painful emotions
- Thinking critically and making good decisions
- Handling challenges with optimism
- Setting goals and taking initiative
- Resolving interpersonal conflicts
- Empathizing with and being kind to others
- Communicating and listening extremely well
- Collaborating and co-creating
In particular, school cultures built on SEL have less intolerance, bullying, shunning, and other behaviors that lead to grievances which, if left to fester, can result in violent outbursts including fights, stabbings, and shootings.
The SEL approach to less violent, more caring school cultures is supported by research. Both Columbia University and Harvard University cite multiple SEL approaches that reduce violence and bullying in schools and develop young people who don’t grow up wanting to kill others.
Getting SEL Into School Culture
According to a national survey of principals, only 25% of schools teach SEL skills in a comprehensive manner that builds their school culture.
With more than 50 million K-12 students in the US, that means that roughly 40 million kids are not experiencing an SEL-based school culture that leads to lower rates of violence.
But there are several pieces of good news.
One is that parents can start engaging their children’s social and emotional skills at home in free and fun ways. After all, parents are prime teachers for kids, especially younger kids. And kids spend most of their time outside of the classroom. There’s a whole host of free, high-quality resources available online for families.
Another is that there exists a growing ecosystem of SEL providers including curriculum and textbook publishers, teacher trainers, technology providers, and researchers. We don’t need to invent a new solution. We have one that’s proven to work.
Next, school systems are very receptive to parent and business involvement. More parents and businesses requesting comprehensive SEL instruction in their local classrooms can lead to safer schools. In fact, just a one percent increase in the number of schools with comprehensive SEL approaches means 400,000 more kids in safer schools. That’s a meaningful change that’s well within reach.
Schools are their own overworked, overwhelming, and unfamiliar world. Many parents and businesses are not skilled in how to engage with schools. EQuip Our Kids! offers guides to parents and businesses on how to engage with local schools and request comprehensive SEL for safer schools.
Building safer school culture is ongoing and systemic work, which isn’t always easy. But it’s the work we must do if we want something other than horrible headlines and active shooter drills for our kids.
Executive Director, EQuip Our Kids!