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Researchers offer suggestions for how to prevent the next school shooting

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This shooting in Uvalde, Texas, follows a familiar pattern. After all these killings at schools, there are declarations of never again and then that question - how do we prevent the next one? NPR's Cory Turner joins me now to talk about how researchers and even the U.S. Secret Service have some very clear answers. Good morning, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Cory, let's start with the one thing schools cannot control - gun policy. What do researchers say works?

TURNER: First, there is broad consensus that arming teachers, which we hear about after every school shooting, is not good policy. I spoke with Matthew Mayer at Rutgers, who's been part of a big interdisciplinary group studying school shootings.

MATTHEW MAYER: Arming teachers is an all-around bad idea because it invites numerous disasters and problems, and the chances of it actually helping are so minuscule.

TURNER: Instead, school safety researchers support tightening age limits for gun ownership from 18 to 21. The teenage brain, they say, is just too impulsive and irrational. You know, the gunman, it's important to note, in Parkland, Santa Fe, Newtown, Columbine, were all under 21. And authorities say the Uvalde gunman waited one day, Leila, after turning 18 to buy an AR-style rifle. In a call to action a few years ago, dozens of advocacy groups and school safety experts, including professor Mayer, also recommended universal background checks and banning assault-style weapons. These are things that polls show the majority of Americans support. I'll add one more thing - this comes from a report by the Secret Service - improve gun storage at home. In half the school shootings they studied, the gun used was either readily accessible at home or not really secured. And everyone I spoke to said without improved gun safety, these tragedies will not stop.

FADEL: OK. So that's gun safety writ large. And a lot of what you describe could apply to mass shootings in a lot of places - churches, supermarkets, concerts. But what, if anything, can schools specifically do?

TURNER: There's been a lot of movement in recent years, Leila, toward hardening schools, things like adding police officers, metal detectors. But the experts I spoke with say schools should also focus on softening to support the social and emotional needs of students. Odis Johnson Jr. heads the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins.

ODIS JOHNSON JR: Our first preventative strategy should be to make sure kids are respected, that they feel connected and belong in schools.

TURNER: Now, I want to be clear here. We obviously don't yet know how this applies to the Uvalde gunman, though it's been reported he had dropped out of high school. The Secret Service found 80% of the attackers they studied had been bullied in school; three-quarters also had some kind of disciplinary history at school. I spoke with Jackie Nowicki, who has led multiple school safety investigations at the Government Accountability Office. She says her teams found a few things closely linked to safer school environments.

JACKIE NOWICKI: Anti-bullying training for staff and teachers, adult supervision, things like hall monitors, and mechanisms to anonymously report hostile behaviors.

TURNER: One last thing that's really important - the Secret Service, as well as school safety experts, also recommend schools implement what they call a threat assessment model. And that's where a trained staff, including an administrator, a school counselor or psychologist and some kind of law enforcement representative, can help identify students who exhibit red flag behaviors and get them the help they need before there's a crisis.

FADEL: So what you're describing, making schools less welcoming, might actually alienate and isolate students who need help. But do schools have the resources to create this supportive environment that you're describing?

TURNER: Well, you know, in recent years, schools have definitely embraced the importance of fostering a positive school climate, accepting, I think, that kids cannot learn if they don't feel safe or welcome, you know, focusing on things like conflict resolution, stress management and empathy. And it's worth noting the timing here, Leila. Because of pandemic stress on children and a flood of federal relief dollars, schools are getting more help with this. They are in the middle of a hiring boom for counselors, social workers and school psychologists. In fact, President Biden himself has said he wants to double the number of mental health professionals based in schools.

FADEL: Thanks. That's NPR's Cory Turner. Thank you so much.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.