Twenty years after Columbine

Glowing Neon Safety SignEvery time the media report on a violent incident on school grounds, parents’ fears about their children’s safety rise to new levels, and policy makers respond by proposing new and unprecedented security measures. As educators, however, we must not give in to fear. Not only does it undermine the trusting, positive culture essential to good teaching and learning, but evidence suggests that the public’s anxieties are deeply irrational. For all the horror of Columbine, Newtown, and Parkland, school shootings are quite rare, and they happen much less often today than in the 1990s (Fox & Fridel, 2018).

Further, it’s not clear what kinds of security measures would be helpful, a point illustrated by a recent Washington Post survey of every school in its database that has endured a shooting of some kind since 2012. Of the 79 school leaders who responded, half said there was little they could have done to prevent the shooting; among those who said they could have done more, most said they didn’t know what, exactly, they could have done (Cox & Rich, 2018a).

When respondents were questioned further, they emphasized how important it is for school staff members to develop deep, trusting relationships with students, because they often hear about threats before teachers do. The priority, they said, is to establish close ties within their school communities — that’s what hope looks like.

What we hear about most often, however, are efforts to “harden” schools with lockdowns, more policing, metal detectors, and teachers carrying guns. Turning schools into fortresses — that’s what fear looks like.

Unfortunately, many Americans have come to believe that school security measures costing hundreds of millions of dollars will protect kids from mass shootings. Indeed, spending on school security has surged in the wake of tragedies like Columbine, even though there’s little to no evidence that such measures actually protect students.

In acting out of fear, we risk doing more harm than good.

For instance, lockdowns, in which students are abruptly commanded to hunker down, often without being informed of a specific threat, have become common across the country. And, as Steven Schlozman, a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, told the Post (Cox & Rich, 2018b), this widespread practice represents “a clear and pressing public health issue.” Evidence suggests that repeatedly frightening children in this way can cause lasting harm, he explained, triggering “everything from worsening academic and social progression to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, post-traumatic symptomatology and substance abuse.”

Prevention is the best cure

Once the shooting starts, it can be difficult to stop. But what if the shooting can be prevented? Suppose that schools were to dedicate themselves to providing more open, trusting environments, in which children and adults relate to each other in healthy and supportive ways. Wouldn’t this greatly diminish the chances that individual students would resort to violence?

Harvard professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes (Edmondson et al., 2016). Such feelings of safety are critical not only to students’ academic growth but also their willingness to tell adults if they have concerns about classmates intending to do harm to the school or other students. Young people must know that adults will act on their concerns, that a positive and respectful environment will be maintained, and that emotional support will be available when they need it (Reeves, Kanan, & Plog, 2011).

Today more than ever, we need to balance the twin requirements of physical and psychological safety. Kids can’t learn if they’re harmed, nor if they experience trauma, hostility, or uncertainty. Superintendents can take deliberate steps to establish district cultures of encouragement, support, and mental health. Such cultures form the foundation of tighter knit and safer communities — communities characterized by deep and meaningful relationships based on mutual respect, concern, and trust among all employees (including bus drivers and janitors, front office staff and cafeteria workers, as well as teachers and students); communities in which every student is embraced as though he or she were an employee’s own child.

The idea that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun is wrong. The best way to stop a bad guy is to help him not become one. And we can do that by turning our schools not into fortresses, but into communities. Not by locking down our students but by lifting them up.



Cox, J.W. & Rich, S. (2018a, November 13). Armored school doors, bulletproof whiteboards and secret snipers. Washington Post.

Cox, J.W. & Rich, S. (2018b, December 26). “What if someone was shooting?” Washington Post.

Edmondson, A.C., Higgins, M., Singer, S., & Weiner, J. (2016). Understanding psychological safety in health care and education organizations: A comparative perspective. Research in Human Development, 13 (1), 65-83.

Fox, J.A. & Fridel, E.E. (2018). The three R’s of school shootings: Risk, readiness, and response,” in H. Shapiro (ed.), The Wiley handbook on violence in education: Forms, factors, and preventions. New York, NY: Wiley/Blackwell Publishers,.

Reeves, M.A., Kanan, L.M., & Plog, A.E. (2011). Comprehensive planning for safe learning environments: A school professional’s guide to integrating physical and psychological safety. New York, NY: Routledge.


Citation: LeGrand, E.R. (2019, May 6). Backtalk: Twenty years after Columbine. Phi Delta Kappan Online.


ETIENNE R. LEGRAND ( is CEO of Vivify Performance, a consulting firm helping leaders create thriving organizational culture in school districts.

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