During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, as schools shut down and went partially or fully remote, school shootings plummeted. Now, as many school buildings have reopened, shootings have begun to rebound. In just the first few weeks of this school year, since August 1, there have been at least 22 shootings at schools, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
The resurgence of school-based gun violence comes as America’s students make sense of yet another abrupt change, adding to a long period of instability. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, youth mental health had already been worsening, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Since the coronavirus outbreak, students lost loved ones, experienced economic hardship, didn’t see their friends in person, and had to sit for hours at a screen to get school credit. On top of that, they missed the extracurricular activities that made school life more enjoyable, like band performances and football games. They did all of this with limited access to the people they turned to for support in person, like school counselors.
That’s why the federal government, states, and many school districts are dedicating funds, such as money from the American Rescue Plan, to resources that aim to help students feel better. Every state that sought ARP education funds — 48 states and Washington, D.C. — included plans to expand access to mental and behavioral health support in its request.
These investments and other district spending choices mark an ongoing shift in resource allocation: While states have long funded programs aimed at keeping schools secure, now, some are targeting student well-being as a means of preventing violence. Ohio is renewing school gun violence prevention trainings like Sandy Hook Promise’s Know the Signs, which focuses on teaching students and educators how to identify, assess, and respond to threats of violence or at-risk behavior before it occurs.
Some states plan to create statewide systems aimed at addressing conflict and mitigating crises. In Maryland, the state Department of Education is staffing six regional crisis response teams to meet the mental and social-emotional needs of students and their families, including deescalation and crisis mitigation. And in Massachusetts, the state is directing resources to support social and mental health initiatives and conflict resolution, instead of punitive punishment for students with behavioral challenges. Oklahoma is set to use $35 million in federal funding to hire 150 school counselors and 150 additional licensed mental health professionals. In the District of Columbia, schools are using the federal funds to expand access to its school-based behavior health system.
Having a mental illness does not mean someone will engage in violence. In fact, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be the perpetrators, according to the American Psychological Association. But mental health challenges can increase students’ risk of engaging in self-harm. And experts worry that some students who are unable to cope with recent stressors — even if they don’t have diagnosable mental illnesses — could instead resort to violence against themselves or others.
And so while mass school shootings remain rare, students remain at risk of more common dangers, including suicide or self-harm, accidental shootings, and interpersonal, peer-to-peer, or intimate partner violence, said Rachel Masi, a clinical psychologist who works with students and adolescents in private practice and as the research director for Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit focused on school-based gun violence prevention. Middle- and high school-age children are more likely to die as the result of a firearm injury than from any other single cause of death.
While the new investments may not be explicitly related to gun violence, they could still have a powerful effect on preventing it, according to Amanda Fitzgerald, assistant deputy executive director at the American School Counselor Association.
“If we could trade in a lot of the reactive security-type systems that are in the high schools and replace them with supports in elementary schools, I think you’d see a larger return on investment and more kids getting the services they need,” she said.
School counselors, psychologists, and social workers don’t just work with students with mental health concerns. They help students experiencing a much broader range of challenges, like financial strain, family discord, abuse or mistreatment at home, school conflicts, or bullying. All of these factors can lead to young people developing emotional and behavioral problems. In one study of school violence, more than 90 percent of those motivated to plan a school attack had suffered significant life stressors, according to the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center.
“Schools that are taking the time to [address life stressors among students] are really going to see a more positive school climate, which is going to bring a reduction in violence, whether it’s to others or to self,” Masi said.
While COVID-19 relief funding is temporary, President Joe Biden’s 2022 budget request includes $1 billion for increasing the number of counselors, nurses, and mental health professionals in schools. Fitzgerald said she’s hopeful that schools will find ways to sustain the additional support even if the federal budget doesn’t fully support it.
“I don’t think that after the pandemic people are going to say we don’t need counseling anymore,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m hopeful that the need has been seen, and it will become a priority.”