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Saturday, March 2, 2024

PERSPECTIVE: Confronting the Crisis of School Shootings from an Infrastructure Security Lens

Simple security improvements can stop or slow external threats from causing havoc while providing law enforcement valuable response time.

In the U.S., public schools are the largest sector of our infrastructure, except for roads and highways. The U.S. has over 100,000 public schools, which serve more than 50 million students and educators.[i] The projected student enrollment is 56.8 million by 2026, displaying that the need for this infrastructure sector is only increasing, and greater protection of students and education even more imperative.

Under the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the public school system falls under the Government Facilities Sector. This sector includes infrastructure that is owned and operated on local, tribal, state, and federal government levels. A subsector of this sector, Education Facilities, is where public schools reside and includes education ranging from pre-kindergarten, or preschool, to senior year of high school.

Education was recognized as a vital component in the very early days of the nation’s birth. The first established high school, the Boston Latin School, was built in 1635 in Boston, Massachusetts, and is still in operation today.[ii] Former President Thomas Jefferson called for the educational system to be funded, recognizing the importance of not only the roles within the building, but the infrastructure of the building as well. By the 19th century, public education was evolving and the number of buildings to teach curriculum was skyrocketing. The public school system was viewed as a safe space for the nation’s youth to grow, learn, socially interact, and be exposed to various teachings that will benefit them in their future and provide them with multiple avenues of potential career paths.

Fast forward to 2023, the two biggest threats facing schools are external threats and the schools themselves, as their infrastructure is declining across the U.S. and becoming more vulnerable. A 2015 Congressional Research Services report shows that the national data on the conditions of school infrastructure and the investment needs are limited and outdated.[iii] As such, school infrastructure vulnerabilities are becoming more apparent with changing and increasing threats, most notably from those seeking mass casualty attacks.[iv] School infrastructure is often viewed as a soft target for many past attackers, and sadly school shootings have increased 163 percent since 2020 and 1,900 percent since 2010, with 300 shooting incidents occurring on school grounds in the year 2022 alone.[v] There were 24 shootings involving death or serious injury in both the years 2018 and 2019. In 2022, that number doubled, with 51 school shootings that resulted in death or serious injury.[vi]

Assess Vulnerabilities

As mentioned, the U.S. has more than 100,000 public schools and an inherent vulnerability is that half of these schools are more than 50 years old[vii] and were built in a much different era. Although school facilities are the second-largest sector of public infrastructure spending, state capital funding for schools was down 31 percent in fiscal year 2017 compared to 2008.[viii] The infrastructure of schools across the nation is deteriorating and the funding remains lower than necessary for improvement, to include security. Over the past decade, school capital spending has decreased dramatically in most states in the U.S. In fact, according to the Government Accountability Office nearly 54 percent of public-school districts need to update or fully replace multiple systems within their infrastructure, including heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. The same report also stated that 27 percent of schools need to repair interior light fixtures, 28 percent need to repair roofing, 13 percent need to increase their structural integrity, 9 percent need to increase their environmental conditions, and 27 percent need to increase their safety and security.[ix] The overall U.S. population is increasing, thus more students are being enrolled, and many schools need to be built or expanded to satisfy the growing population. According to a report, the separation of schools’ facility planning from municipal land use planning is a major issue, as there is reportedly no institutional framework that creates an avenue for these two entities to leverage each other and plan together. This also creates disproportionate funding efforts for children residing in urban areas versus suburban areas.[x] All of this illustrates that existing schools need massive improvements, and new schools are facing obstacles to begin construction.

An unfortunate cascading effect to the deteriorating infrastructure of the school system is schools becoming more vulnerable to external threats. The infrastructure of schools is seemingly viewed as soft targets by those seeking to carry out a mass casualty attack. Such attacks have occurred across cities and communities both big and small, often following school events or class, either inside the school or on the campus. The perpetrators vary from students or former students to those with no confirmed relationship at all to the school. The U.S. first experienced a mass casualty attack at a school in Bath, Mich., in 1927 from twin bombings; it remains the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history with 44 people killed, including 38 students.[xi] Although it is still the deadliest attack at a school ever recorded, it was certainly not the last. Since that day in 1927, mass casualty attacks at public schools have grown increasingly more prominent, under a more common and sinister moniker of “school shootings.”[xii] Some of the more well-known and deadly school shootings include Columbine, Colo., in 1999; Newtown, Conn., in 2012; Parkland, Fla., in 2018; Oxford, Mich., in 2021; and Uvalde, Texas, in 2022. Since 2009, at least 177 schools across the U.S. have experienced a school shooting.[xiii] School shootings are especially increasing in high school, grades 9-12, and are often occurring on Friday afternoons.[xiv] The suburban schools tend to have more casualties, with the average school shooting having at least two victims. [xv]

Although we live in an open society, simple security improvements – such as door lock repairs, door glass hardening, barrier fencing, entry badge readers, secondary classroom door locks, parking lot offset, and vehicle barriers – can stop or slow external threats from causing havoc while providing law enforcement valuable response time. An increase in funding toward these means could help improve security posture. In a recent interview, an individual who lost their daughter in the Parkland shooting spoke out about ways in which the U.S. can help prevent school shootings. Examples included security improvements, such as locking gates and doors and increased security personnel on campus.[xvi]

A relevant case study to analyze infrastructure failures occurred at Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde on May 24. This mass casualty attack, carried out by a former student, ended the lives of 21 people. According to the Robb Elementary Shooting Report created by the investigative committee probing the shooting, the school acknowledged that the district was not adequately prepared for an armed intruder on campus despite some security improvements in the school district. The school had a 5-foot-tall exterior fence that was failing, did not fix broken doors and locks on exterior doors and interior classroom doors, and still had low-quality internet service within the building that stalled the ability for a prompt law enforcement response after the attacker scaled a fence and entered through an exterior door that should have locked and then took refuge in a classroom with a broken lock. Of note, the students and educators were allegedly aware that classroom 111 was typically unsecured with a faulty lock and that it was highly accessible by an exterior door; classroom 111 was where the attacker chose to kill most of his victims that day.[xvii]

Human Element

In addition to the infrastructure vulnerabilities and external threats, when school shootings do occur there is an aftermath of mental, emotional, and psychological damage to those directly and indirectly involved. Since the Columbine shooting in 1999 that left 13 dead, more than 240,000 students have been exposed to gun violence as of 2021.[xviii] The mental, emotional, and psychological damage is further exacerbated by the growing desensitization of Americans to school shootings. Following a mass casualty attack that gains nationwide attention, there is rapid and intense media coverage and public response, thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, and somewhere down the road all goes back to our nation’s perceived “normal” until the next school shooting. The increasing amount of mass shootings at schools has warranted many in society, including academics, doctors, educators, and the public, to conclude that a mental health intervention is warranted. School shootings seem to exclusively be a U.S. phenomenon. One study found that local exposure to fatal school shootings increased antidepressant use among youths, according to Stanford University.[xix] The study analyzed 44 mass casualty attacks, including 15 that resulted in at least one death, looked at the retail pharmacies near the attack and discovered that antidepressant prescriptions for youths in those areas increased.[xx] Many students and educators are scared to attend public school in person, creating an unhealthy atmosphere in an environment that was once touted as a safe space for student education and personal growth.

This increasing trend in school shootings has generated mainly two conversations: mental health and gun rights. Although there is much controversary over gun restrictions in the U.S. and the impact it may or may not have on decreasing school shootings, the conversation surrounding mental health seems to be a factor many agree on. Along with the mental health status of school shooting victims, it is worth understanding the mental health of the perpetrator. According to a report by Oxford Academic, many of the perpetrators experienced school bullying, isolation from not getting along or “fitting in” with classmates, were noncompliant in taking prescribed psychiatric medicine, and many had access to guns at home.[xxi] Many of the perpetrators were also exposed to gun violence, whether in the media or online platforms and video games that promote violence, which contributed to increased youth aggression: 61 percent of the perpetrators allegedly “wanted revenge” and 81 percent held a grievance against another individual at the time of the attack.[xxii] Outside of the broader challenges of detecting mental illness and forcing treatment on someone who “may” be a future perpetrator but as of yet has not committed a crime, investigating purchases and access to guns within a home before a crime has been committed, and/or the larger Second Amendment debate, there are infrastructure improvements the U.S. can immediately do to stop and slow external threats seeking a mass causality event.

Opportunities to Improve

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the estimated cost of bringing all schools into better condition has nearly reached $200 billion.[xxiii] In 2021, President Biden proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan; $100 billion would be geared toward school improvements, specifically construction for brand new schools, as well as necessary improvements to existing schools that would include enhanced security.[xxiv] Even if such a large infrastructure plan is possible, a carve-out toward public schools to enhance security is imperative. Funding for these programs has fluctuated, but the Biden administration proposed fixing this fluctuation.[xxv] Furthermore, the American Rescue Plan, a plan designed to deliver relief to the American people, and other COVID-19 relief packages that aided the K-12 education system in the U.S. could be used to increase school security. Lastly, an idea proposed in a study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is to make funds more available for borrowing and lowering interest costs further by allowing school districts across the country to issue bonds for which investors can claim tax credits instead of tax deductions, to make bonds even more attractive and reduce the localities’ cost of borrowing.[xxvi] This construct would allow for the issuance of bonds to allow schools to improve security.

The National Institute of Justice is funding a project through the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative to create a database that will serve as a tool to analyze previous shootings at schools to prevent future ones. The “School Shooting Database” will also provide a more comprehensive understanding of the attackers, to begin preventing not only school shootings but prevent the mobilization to violence as well.[xxvii] There is growing interest, fascination, and comfortability with the pursuit of violence stemming from mainly online spaces. These online platforms encourage, promote, and inspire violence. Many are becoming easily radicalized online and are then targeting schools. One example of this is the Uvalde elementary school shooter, who was referred to online as “Yubo” and the “Yubo school shooter,” where he also allegedly discussed his interest in firearms and mass casualty violence with online associates.[xxviii] As discussed, many of these external threats were and likely will continue to be current and former students who hold real or perceived grievances with the school, students, or educators. Thus, to help mitigate school shootings, actions should be considered to fund technology and resources to track open-source social media of current and former students, identified as displaying warning signs, to uncover any expression of violence or mass causality inclination against a school or elsewhere; resources for voluntary mental health intervention at the school level; identification and arbitration of real or perceived grievances before they fester; and possibly ways to limit juvenile access to weapons and ammunition within homes often associated with mass casualty events at schools.

Conclusion

Education in the U.S. has flourished over the centuries, with the infrastructure being a vital part of the success. However, vulnerabilities are increasing due to the aging and inadequate infrastructure and external threats that are becoming increasingly more violent and deadly. Education in the U.S. is imperative to the success of the nation, and therefore the safety and the physical and mental wellbeing of students and educators should be paramount. Solutions are needed to stop what seems to be an increasing deluge of school shootings, but simple infrastructure solutions exist today and can be implemented now to stem the rising tide.

A final note on something that occurred during the writing of this article. On Monday, a 28-year-old former student carried out a mass shooting at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee, killing three 9-year-old students and three adults.[xxix] According to CNN reporting, the shooter had conducted and selected the school based on a threat assessment – likely due to lower security posture because of the absence of a resource police officer and fencing – and entered the school by simply shooting out glass-paneled doors that were locked.[xxx] Fox News reported that despite serious emotional issues that required doctor intervention, the shooter was still able to acquire what they described as an arsenal of weapons, of which some were used in the mass casualty event. [xxxi] Although this was a private Christian school, the shooting highlights that within our greater public school systems things are getting worse and not better.

 

This article was originally written as research paper by a student at the National Intelligence University. Based on the student’s Intelligence Community affiliation, the student wished to remain anonymous, but through collaboration, the student’s instructor and co-author added to the work and pursued publication so this troubling epidemic could be addressed.

The listed author is responsible for the content of this article. The views expressed do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Intelligence Community, or the U.S. Government.

 

Bibliography

[i] National Education Association; “Public Schools are Critical Infrastructure that must be Rebuilt”; 16 April 2021; Public schools are critical infrastructure that must be rebuilt | NEA

[ii] Public School Review; “A History of Public Schools”; 7 March 2022; A History of Public Schools (publicschoolreview.com)

[iii] 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure; “2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure – Schools”; 2021; School Infrastructure | ASCE’s 2021 Infrastructure Report Card

[iv] The Guardian; “Gates, no windows, singly entry: can school redesign deter mass shootings?”; 4 July 2022 Gates, no windows, single entry: can school redesign deter mass shootings? | U.S. education | The Guardian

[v] K-12 Deep Dive; “School shootings reach unprecedented high in 2022”; 21 December 2022; School shootings reach unprecedented high in 2022 | K-12 Dive (k12dive.com)

[vi] Education Weekly; “School Shootings in 2022: How Many and Where”; 27 January 2023; School Shootings in 2022: How Many and Where (edweek.org)

[vii] National Education Association; “Public Schools are Critical Infrastructure that must be Rebuilt”; 16 April 2021; Public schools are critical infrastructure that must be rebuilt | NEA

[viii] 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure; “2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure – Schools”; 2021; School Infrastructure | ASCE’s 2021 Infrastructure Report Card

[ix] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; “America’s School Infrastructure Needs a Major Investment of Federal Funds to Advance an Equitable Recovery”; 17 May 2021; America’s School Infrastructure Needs a Major Investment of Federal Funds to Advance an Equitable Recovery | Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (cbpp.org)

[x] Vincent, Jeffrey M.; Journal Article; “Public Schools as Public Infrastructure: Roles for Planning Researchers”; 2016 June 30; Public Schools as Public Infrastructure: Roles for Planning Researchers – Jeffrey M. Vincent, 2006 (sagepub.com)

[xi] Smithsonian Magazine; “The 1927 Bombing That Remains America’s Deadliest School Massacre”; 18 May 2017;  The 1927 Bombing That Remains America’s Deadliest School Massacre | History| Smithsonian Magazine

[xii] CNN; “10 years. 180 shootings. 356 victims. CNN examined 10 years of shooting on K-12 campuses across the U.S.”; 2019; 10 years. 180 school shootings. 356 victims. CNN examined 10 years of shootings on K-12 campuses across the U.S..

[xiii] CNN; “10 years. 180 shootings. 356 victims. CNN examined 10 years of shooting on K-12 campuses across the U.S.”; 2019; 10 years. 180 school shootings. 356 victims. CNN examined 10 years of shootings on K-12 campuses across the U.S..

[xiv] CNN; “10 years. 180 shootings. 356 victims. CNN examined 10 years of shooting on K-12 campuses across the U.S.”; 2019; 10 years. 180 school shootings. 356 victims. CNN examined 10 years of shootings on K-12 campuses across the U.S..

[xv] CNN; “10 years. 180 shootings. 356 victims. CNN examined 10 years of shooting on K-12 campuses across the U.S.”; 2019; 10 years. 180 school shootings. 356 victims. CNN examined 10 years of shootings on K-12 campuses across the U.S..

[xvi] Fox News; Open Source Reporting; “Father of Parkland shooting victim speaks out on tragic anniversary: ‘Criminals don’t obey gun laws’; 14 February 2023; Father of Parkland shooting victim speaks out on tragic anniversary: ‘Criminals don’t obey gun laws’ | Fox News

[xvii] Texas House of Representatives; Investigative Committee Interim Report 2022; “Investigative Committee on the Robb Elementary School Shooting; 17 July 2022; Uvalde investigative committee releases full report (ketk.com)

[xviii] Institute for Policy Research; “The Cost of School Shootings”; 27 January 2021; The Cost of School Shootings: Institute for Policy Research – Northwestern University

[xix] Stanford University News; Open Source Reporting; “Stanford researchers uncover the silent cost of school shootings”; 16 December 2019; The silent cost of school shootings | Stanford News

[xx] Stanford University News; Open Source Reporting; “Stanford researchers uncover the silent cost of school shootings”; 16 December 2019; The silent cost of school shootings | Stanford News

[xxi] Oxford Academia; Journal Article; “Children and Schools”; January 2023; Children & Schools | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

[xxii] Oxford Academia; Journal Article; “Children and Schools”; January 2023; Children & Schools | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

[xxiii] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Open Source Reporting; “America’s School Infrastructure Needs a Major Investment of Federal Funds to Advance an Equitable Recovery”; 17 May 2021; America’s School Infrastructure Needs a Major Investment of Federal Funds to Advance an Equitable Recovery | Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (cbpp.org)

[xxiv] Education Weekly; Open Source Reporting; “Biden Infrastructure Plan Calls for $100 Billion for School Construction, Upgrades”; 31 March 2021; Biden Infrastructure Plan Calls for $100 Billion for School Construction, Upgrades (edweek.org)

[xxv] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Open Source Reporting; “America’s School Infrastructure Needs a Major Investment of Federal Funds to Advance an Equitable Recovery”; 17 May 2021; America’s School Infrastructure Needs a Major Investment of Federal Funds to Advance an Equitable Recovery | Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (cbpp.org)

[xxvi] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Open Source Reporting; “America’s School Infrastructure Needs a Major Investment of Federal Funds to Advance an Equitable Recovery”; 17 May 2021; America’s School Infrastructure Needs a Major Investment of Federal Funds to Advance an Equitable Recovery | Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (cbpp.org)

[xxvii] DOJ National Institute of Justic; Open Source Reporting; “What do the data reveal about violence in schools?”; 13 November 2020; What Do the Data Reveal About Violence in Schools? | National Institute of Justice (ojp.gov)

[xxviii] Fox News; Open Source Reporting; “Texas school shooting: Suspected gunman made threats, called ‘Yubo school shooter’ on platform, users said”; 28 May 2022;  Texas school shooting: Suspected gunman made threats, called ‘Yubo school shooter’ on platform, users said | Fox News

[xxix] CNN; Open Source Reporting; “Nashville private school shooting suspect had maps of building and scouted possible second attack location, police say’; 28 March 2023; Shooter kills 3 students and 3 adults at Covenant elementary school, police say | CNN

[xxx] CNN; Open Source Reporting; “Nashville private school shooting suspect had maps of building and scouted possible second attack location, police say’; 28 March 2023; Shooter kills 3 students and 3 adults at Covenant elementary school, police say | CNN

[xxxi] Fox News; Open Source Reporting: “Nashville school shooter legally purchased weapons, suffered emotional disorder: police’; 28 Mar 2023; Nashville school shooter legally purchased weapons, suffered emotional disorder: police | Fox News

 

IC Author and Mitchell Simmons
IC Author and Mitchell Simmons
This article was originally written as research paper by a student at the National Intelligence University. Based on the student’s Intelligence Community affiliation, the student wished to remain anonymous, but through collaboration, the student’s instructor and co-author added to the work and pursued publication so this troubling epidemic could be addressed. Dr. Mitchell E. Simmons, Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force (Retired) is the Associate Dean and Program Director in the Anthony G. Oettinger School of Science and Technology Intelligence at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Simmons oversees three departments consisting of five concentrations and he is the Course Director for a graduate level course in Infrastructure Assessment Vulnerability which is part of a Homeland Security Intelligence Certificate program popular with students from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. Dr. Simmons has almost 30 years of experience in acquisition, engineering, program management, targeting, and vulnerability assessment. His technical expertise includes physical and functional vulnerability of critical infrastructure from traditional and asymmetric threats. Dr. Simmons holds a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Ohio University, a M.S. from Central Michigan University, and a Ph.D. in Engineering Management from The Union Institute and University.

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