Education

Policymakers across Kentucky — and the nation — have grappled with how to best prevent mass school shootings committed by children, like those in Parkland, Florida and Marshall County, Kentucky.

In Kentucky, lawmakers’ best efforts have resulted in a new school safety law that schools will have to begin implementing in 2022. Many districts are already beginning to assess their compliance and make plans to meet the new requirements. The Jefferson County School Board will meet Tuesday night to discuss the district’s efforts to comply with the new law.

Legislators who sponsored Kentucky’s school safety law say it calls for both “hardening schools” — by putting more locks and barriers in buildings and hiring more school resources officers — and “softening schools,” through measures like creating threat assessment teams and hiring more counselors who can identify students at risk of committing a shooting. 

One health researcher at Indiana’s Ball State University argues that although Kentucky’s law is beneficial, it misses out on the most effective measures that could stop school shootings.

In his recent article “School Firearm Violence Prevention Practices and Policies: Functional or Folly?” researcher Jagdish Khubchandani reviewed 89 scientific studies on school safety and gun violence. In his review of those studies, he writes that efforts to reduce student gun violence tend to fall in one of three categories of prevention:

Level One: Efforts to reduce the risk of youth gaining access to guns. This level is the primary form of prevention, and includes Child Access Prevention laws that try to keep children from getting access to guns in the first place. These laws are statistically shown to reduce child gun violence. CAP Laws may include criminal liability for adults if their child shoots someone with a gun that was not properly stored.

Kentucky has laws that prohibit adults from recklessly providing a handgun to a child under the age of 18, but the state does not hold adults liable if they intentionally or unintentionally provide a gun to a child who commits a shooting.

Level Two: Efforts to identify children at-risk of committing a shooting. Some elements of Kentucky’s school safety law fall into this category, including efforts to create threat assessment teams and employ more school counselors and mental health professionals.

Level Three: Efforts to minimize deaths and injuries if a person attempts a school shooting. These include measures to put more locks and physical barriers in schools, employ more school resource officers and school safety coordinators who can respond to threats, and train students and staff how to respond to an active shooter. Most of the measures in Kentucky’s school safety law fall into this category.

Khubchandani argues that the effectiveness of many of these measures has not been well-studied. But, one thing is clear.

“Research has overwhelmingly found that Child Access Prevention laws have reduced firearm deaths in youths,” Khubchandani writes in the paper.

He cites studies that found states with CAP laws saw:

A research review by the RAND corporation found that the effect of CAP laws on mass shootings was inconclusive.

“The new safety bill in Kentucky is a good assortment of different things,” Khubchandani said. “But I hope [the state] can complement it with a stronger child access prevention law.”

He contrasts gun violence with other public health problems, like heart disease or diabetes, that medical providers and policymakers usually address with health education and a focus on lifestyle changes to improve people’s risk and outcomes.

“Our society has to decide are we proactive or reactive? Are we acting or reacting?” Khubchandani said.

He adds that it is important to keep school shootings in perspective — these events, while horrific, are relatively rare compared to the thousands of youth suicides and homicides that occur each year outside of school. While Kentucky’s new school safety law does call for some suicide prevention education, most of the measures in the law can not address either of those tragedies.

Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.