March 2023 saw four school shootings, with the shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, serving as the deadliest and garnering the most media attention. With so much coverage, focus, and effort to counter school shootings since Columbine, it raises the question of why the United States still has so many more school shootings than other countries. The World Population Review reports the United States endured 288 school shootings from January 2009 to May 2018, while the closest (Mexico) had 8. School shootings in the United States have a long history, with the first documented school shooting in the 1800s. Most of these early incidents appear to be isolated events with one or two victims, more targeted acts of violence against one person versus a planned mass murder. The April 1999 Columbine shooting is frequently mentioned as the first mass shooting in recent times in the United States. Other school shootings at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Uvalde had large numbers of deaths and casualties.
It is important to understand the numbers discussed across reporting. The federal government does not have a singular definition for a school shooting, so the numbers are collected and reported using slightly different standards. When discussing violence in schools, the federal government uses several different approaches. They may define it as “targeted school violence,” an active shooting in an educational setting, or other definition. Targeted school violence was first outlined in The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative in 2004. This joint report from the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education was one of the first attempts to outline prevention efforts in the aftermath of the Columbine attack. Targeted school violence here refers to “any incident where (i) a current student or recent former student attacked someone at his or her school with lethal means …, and (ii) where the student attacker purposefully chose his or her school as the location of the attack.” However, in this report “incidents where the school was chosen simply as a site of opportunity…or…a violent interaction between individuals that just happened to occur at the school were not included.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports each year focus on active shooter incidents, but also identify school shootings within the context of their reporting. Active shooters have a standard definition at the federal level – “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” Under this definition, incidents are separated into a number of categories based on characteristics of the events. For example, the FBI listed 61 active shooter incidents in 2021, with 2 of these occurring in educational settings. However, in 2020, the FBI report designated 40 active shooter events with none in education. This can be compared with reporting from the National Center for Education Statistics, which lists 93 school shootings during the 2020-2021 school year.
Using data compiled on April 10, 2023, the Washington Post’s School Shooting Database, as an example, shows 18 K-12 shootings have occurred so far in 2023 in the United States, with 8 dead and 14 wounded. By comparison, the K-12 School Shooting Database lists over 100 school shootings with over 80 casualties and continues to grow each day. The K-12 School Shooting Database differs from many other data sets as it lists all shootings at schools “when a gun is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time, or day of the week.” Other databases limit the reporting to school hours, school grounds, or narrower definitions. This wide disparity in methodology can lead to wide-ranging reporting and confusion about the scope of the problem, where the issues lie, and trends in incidents and behaviors.
Chain of Events on March 27, 2023
The Covenant School is a small private school for pre-K through 6th grade. The school was founded in 2001 as an extension of the Covenant Presbyterian Church, which was founded in 1980. There are 33 faculty on-site, and the school shows an average enrollment of approximately 200 students, with a staff-to-student ratio of 8:1. The school hours, from 7:15 a.m.-5:30 p.m., provide before and after school care. The victims in this school shooting included three adults and three 9-year-old children. The three adult victims included the head of the school, a substitute teacher, and a custodian.
According to a police spokesperson, the shooter was a 28-year-old transgender man (i.e., female at birth but identified using he/him) who previously attended the school. Police killed the shooter within 15 minutes of the first 911 call, less than an hour after the shooter left his home that morning. According to a press conference with the police chief, the shooter was under treatment for an emotional disorder and had purchased seven guns (legally). The shooter took three handgun classes and practiced at shooting ranges, all within the past year. The shooter brought three guns to the school and hid the remaining firearms at home without his parents’ knowledge. The police department press release confirmed that the attack was premeditated and that extensive planning had been completed prior to the attack.
In addition to the seven guns legally purchased over 2.5 years and firing range practices in the year prior to the attack, he also completed three defensive handgun training classes before April 2022. Documents obtained from the shooter showed that multiple locations, including a local mall, had been considered. The school was ultimately chosen due to less security. Documents obtained included a school map, details of the selected entry point, and the subsequent attack. The shooter had a defined plan and knew the target area. The elapsed time from leaving the house until death by law enforcement was less than an hour.
Timeline on March 27, 2023 (all times below are a.m. Central Standard Time):
- 9:30: Shooter leaves home.
- 9:53: Shooter is seen on camera footage arriving at The Covenant School, driving Honda Fit.
- 9:57: Shooter sends a goodbye message on Instagram to a former middle school classmate, stating something bad is about to happen.
- 10:10: Shooter fires rounds through the glass doors of the school’s side entrance, gains entry, and is seen on video carrying two AR-style rifles and a handgun.
- 10:13: Additional shots were fired, and a call to 911 was made.
- 10:13: Hale walks through a school hallway. For several minutes, the shooter walks around outside a church office, enters, exits, and then passes the children’s ministry.
- 10:21: Shooter fires shots before walking out of the video frame. The first responding officers arrived on campus.
- 10:23: The first officers enter the school. Police body-worn camera footage shows officers going room to room looking for the shooter, clearing classrooms, and speeding past at least one body in a hallway.
- 10:24: A team of five officers arrived on the second level and followed the sound of gunfire toward the shooter, according to police body-worn camera footage.
- 10:25: Two officers engaged the suspect.
- 10:27: The suspected shooter is declared dead.
- Children were removed from the school and sent to an off-site reunification area (another local church).
Post-Incident Reviews of the Covenant School Shooting
After-action reviews are performed to answer questions, including understanding what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, what was executed successfully, what did not go as planned, and what changes need to be made going forward. Covenant is an example of a small location that was trained and remained calm during the event. The quick thinking and actions of each group of individuals, from the staff to the students to law enforcement, all played a role in successfully minimizing the loss of life. A security consultant named Brink Fidler trained the Covenant School staff in mass shooter training in 2022. His review of the shooting determined that they had implemented their training in this event, including covering windows and turning out the lights. There were signs that some teachers were able to remove/evacuate the students, and others hid. Fidler also noticed a medical bag out and available for use if needed.
A review of 911 calls shows that teachers called while in hiding to ask for help very quickly. A total of three calls came in from the teachers within the building. Children can be heard crying quietly in the background while being guided to hide and remain as quiet as possible. A review of school camera footage shows the shooter entering the school by shooting through locked doors. There are no signs of hesitation as he enters. Alarms are immediately sounded within the building and can be seen and heard in the footage. The shooter remains close to the wall as he moves through the building, and how the shooter holds the weapon suggests there was previous training in tactical movements.
A review of police bodycam footage shows that the police do not hesitate when they arrive on the scene. The teachers are calm, with the first teacher pointing to the next teacher who held the keys to the building. This person also communicates that two children appear to be missing. The second teacher provides the keys for entry into the building. Footage of the classrooms shows that no students are in sight, nor can they be heard as the rooms are searched. Coordinated efforts from law enforcement inside the building led to a quick takedown of the shooter on the second floor of the building. From start to finish, the shooter was incapacitated within 15 minutes of the first 911 call. Professionals around the country have lauded the Metro Nashville Police’s efforts and contrasted them with the Uvalde Police response after the 2022 school shooting in Texas.
Historical Trends Regarding Active Shooters
School shootings continue to increase each year, and a previous study by the Office of Justice Programs identified similarities among these events. The research found an alarming majority of these events are premeditated, with the shooter(s) displaying previous signs of concerning behavior. Additionally, the majority of the shooters had felt bullied or threatened and had also confided in a schoolmate or sibling before the event. What was not similar in these events was the academic performance of the shooters. This area ranged from failing grades to superior grades, which follows an FBI study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013. This study noted that most active shooters obtained their firearms legally and took the time to plan their attacks. The research also reported the shooters’ multiple stressors and problem behaviors in the year leading up to their attacks. The Covenant shooter, according to law enforcement, legally purchased 7 firearms over the previous few months, spent months planning the attack, was being treated for an emotional disorder, and left messages for a friend that concerned them enough to notify law enforcement, though it was too late to intervene. As a former student, the attacker was also able to write out maps of the school during the planning phase of the attack.
In 2019, the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center published a report on targeted school violence. Within their analysis of 41 incidents of targeted school violence, they felt that most could have been prevented by implementing a prevention program and identifying students of concern. After students of concern are identified, an intervention plan can be implemented to help prevent escalations that lead to acts of violence. This report also confirmed some similarities previously noted in the Office of Justice and FBI reports, concluding that guns are most frequently used and obtained either legally or from their home (family members’ weapons).
The Department of Homeland Security suggests that most active shooter events last 10-15 minutes. As such, it is important to have a strong plan in place to mitigate death and injuries until law enforcement can arrive. The National Center for Education Statistics shows a marked increase in schools that include written plans in the event of an active shooter. The current percentage is 96.2%, compared to 78.5% in 2003. The percentages range between 96% and 97% individually for elementary, middle, and high schools. The lowest percentage is 92%, attributed to combined schools. It would seem that this specific subset would need a strong plan in place due to the intricacies and large age range of their student populations.
No One-Size-Fits-All for Training
Even with the high percentage of written plans for active shooter events, there are mixed feelings about active shooter preparedness in schools. Differences of opinion range from the type of drills that should occur to the age range of the children that should be involved in any drills. These differences lead to a lack of standardization and approach for such an event, which could be both a positive and a negative. Some schools use pellet guns, shooting blanks and simulating wounded victims with fake blood, which has raised concern from several organizations, such as SandyHookPromise.org. The American Academy of Pediatrics also states that historically young children have not been involved in these types of drills and that it is important to ensure that there are no unintended consequences, such as psychological trauma, by including younger children in these drills.
Following are examples of different types of trainings currently being offered:
- The FBI educational resources teach “Run, Hide, Fight,” but the training is slightly different when the location is a school and primarily focuses on the run or hide aspect.
- Save the Children provides tips for managing active shooter drills, which include different levels of drills based on age. Younger children should learn familiarity with their surroundings and how to safely hide, whereas older children can be taught additional items, such as safely evacuating and calling 911.
- I Love You Guys is a nonprofit organization that provides training for schools and includes the concept of “locks, lights, out of sight.” This concept involves securing the occupied area, turning out the lights and lowering shades to make it more difficult to see, and remaining out of sight quietly until the event ends.
- Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) publishes a wealth of training and resources for schools and communities for active shooter preparedness.
- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also provides training resources and includes reminders for people to silence their phones or any other items that may attract attention to themselves.
An emergency action plan should include a method for reporting events, evacuation plans, an understanding of the number of people currently in the location, and clear-cut roles for each adult to prevent unnecessary overlap. When law enforcement arrives, keep hands visible and follow directions. If known, share the number of shooters, physical description, description of weapons, and the number of missing or potential known victims. Having a plan for removing people to an off-site location for reunification with families may also be necessary and should be determined ahead of time.
Preventing the Next School Shooting
A study of mass shootings from 1980 to 2019 published in the National Library of Medicine concluded that police or security presence did not appear to help reduce the incidence of school shootings. This study even suggests that an armed presence actually increased the death rate. Studies also show that school shooters tend to enter the event with the intent to die, so a school with armed security in place may provide additional incentives for choosing that particular location. The study concluded that the strongest action to take is to invest in preventing school shootings before they occur. Following are some helpful resources:
- The National Association of School Resource Officers provides a variety of training and resources to assist resource officers as they serve as the primary first responders for critical events on their schools’ campuses.
- The U.S. Department of Education, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, FBI, and Federal Emergency Management Agency, published a 2013 Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans. This guide is used by a number of school systems around the country in the development of their safe schools’ programs.
- The 2013 guide was followed in 2018 by the U.S. Secret Service’s Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model. This operational guide was published in the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas school shooting and provides eight steps for schools to take to create a targeted violence prevention plan.
- For schools interested in funding opportunities, SchoolSafety.gov offers a grant-finding tool and library to help schools connect available funding with their proposed programs.
The Secret Service’s 2021 report on Averting Targeted School Violence noted there were points where intervention was possible in the overwhelming majority of cases. Many students planning or executing shootings experienced school discipline, contacts with law enforcement, bullying, or mental health issues. They also intended or committed suicide during the attack, dealt with substance abuse, or experienced adverse childhood experiences. The report also noted the need for pairing school threat assessments with appropriate support and resources for distressed students. As stated in the report, the intent is not to penalize students in crisis or divert them to the criminal justice system but to provide a more positive outcome during times of distress. It also noted that classmates are best positioned to report their peers’ red-flag behaviors, so it is critically important to educate students and follow up on these reports proactively and positively.
School shootings have a long and problematic history in the United States, and it is unlikely that any single action or policy will address and resolve this issue. The response of Metro Nashville Police during the Covenant shooting may be the new standard for law enforcement response. The training and assessments conducted by the school proved to be of tremendous value, as well. These elements may go a long way toward mitigating the impacts of school shootings, but taking additional steps to identify red flags and provide adequate support and interventions is also needed.
Tanya M. Scherr
Tanya M. Scherr, Ph.D., CFE, holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration with a healthcare emergency preparedness focus. She is an associate professor in Healthcare Administration for the University of Arizona – Global Campus and has over 28 years of healthcare experience. Along with being a Certified Fraud Examiner since 2011, she is also a former firefighter-emergency medical technician and is still actively licensed in several states. In addition, she has held several executive and board of director positions for community nonprofits that focus on the arts, women’s equality, and domestic violence and sexual assault.
Daniel Scherr holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy Administration with a terrorism, mediation, and peace focus. He is an assistant professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Tennessee Southern and program coordinator for the Cybersecurity Program. In addition, he is a Certified Fraud Examiner and Army veteran with two decades of experience in homeland security and operation.