Picture a school nurse’s office: walls adorned with cheery posters about handwashing, a first-aid bed for the occasional stomach ache, a neat row of bandages for a scraped knee. Maybe a Kleenex box on a desk next to a stack of coveted hall passes. It’s a scene full of soft, comfortable textures — but for Robin Cogan, a school nurse in Camden, New Jersey, the typical nurse’s office is missing a necessity. 

In Cogan’s own office, she maintains a supply of locks, each with a braided steel cable stretching a little over a foot. They’re for guns.

Cogan would like to see gun locks become an essential element in the school nurse toolkit, alongside emergency inhalers and epi-pens. School nurses are charged with keeping students safe and healthy, but they have largely been left out of gun violence prevention efforts, even as shootings are increasingly treated as a public health issue. They may be uniquely positioned to bolster gun violence prevention through care, education, and intervention. 

“School nurses are on the front lines of all school emergencies, including school shootings,” said Cogan, who’s also a clinical coordinator of the School Nurse Program at Rutgers University. “So why aren’t [we] on the front lines of prevention of school shootings?”

In a recent article published in the journal of the National Association of School Nurses, Cogan and co-author Laurie Combe, another longtime school nurse, outlined a comprehensive plan for school nurses to tackle the issue of gun violence. Their proposals include screening students for firearm injury risk, educating students and their families on gun safety, and promoting safe firearm storage. 

“We know that firearms are causing many, many deaths in children and other members of the population,” Combe told me. “Why would you not want to do something as simple as making gun locks available to help decrease those numbers of deaths in children and their family members in your community?”

School nurses are already often engaged with social conditions that are linked to violence or suicide risk. Nurses — along with school counselors, psychologists, and social workers — screen and provide support to students experiencing a much broader range of challenges, including financial strain, family discord, abuse or mistreatment at home, or bullying. As it is, school nurses spend about a third of their time providing mental health care.

School nurses are on the front lines of all school emergencies, including school shootings. So why aren’t [we] on the front lines of prevention of school shootings?

Also, unlike other faculty and staff members, school nurses don’t discipline or grade kids, nor are they responsible for recommendations or college admissions. Their only role is to support students and ensure they’re safe — to provide a refuge.

“Sometimes things get very charged at school. It can be a very intense environment,” Cogan told me. “We are really there for the health, well-being, and safety of children and school staff.”

Cogan is already taking a harm reduction approach with her gun locks program. When she distributes a lock, she doesn’t ask probing questions about whether a student’s family owns guns, nor does she scold parents into getting rid of their firearms if they do have them. Instead, she hopes that by providing gun locks and encouraging safe firearm storage in a nonconfrontational way, she will be able to lower the chance that a student can access a gun, bring one to school, or use one at home to hurt themselves or a family member.

“You’re not talking about removing guns. You’re not talking about your right to own a gun,” Cogan said. “The premise is that guns are here. How do we live safely among them?”

Getting more of the country’s nearly 100,000 school nurses involved in gun violence reduction could be complicated. It is a heavily localized field, with workers typically employed by individual school districts. Different districts have different funding and staffing models, and in some places, one nurse may be tasked with serving multiple schools. Other schools — as many as a quarter — have no nurse at all. And nurses who work in schools aren’t isolated from a broader crisis in the field: Burnout is higher than ever.

To scale up the gun-lock project, Cogan needs more funding — and to get more funding, she needs evidence to support the intervention. But like many other interventions to prevent gun violence, school nurses’ role in addressing gun violence hasn’t been researched. But Cogan has partnered with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Gun Violence Prevention Center to run a small study on integrating safe storage education into the role of school nurses in New Jersey and Massachusetts. The results could be ready in the coming months.

It couldn’t come fast enough for Cogan and Combe, who’ve both dealt with gun violence — including student suicides and community violence — at their schools during their careers. Over the last 10 years, there’s been a steady increase in firearm suicide rates among youth, particularly teens of color, and gun injury has become the leading cause of injury death for minors. While most of those shootings take place off campus, they still affect students back at school.

“That’s why we decided to take this harm-reduction approach,” Combe told me. “To say to families: ‘You can stop the death of children — whether it’s intentional or non-intentional, or if it’s suicide — if you just practice safe storage. We can help facilitate that for you.’”

News You Can Use

Portland Finalizes Big Piece of Gun Violence Prevention Plan: The city of Portland has approved final contracts and funding for violence interrupters, who will take on a leading role in the city’s anti-violence efforts. The funding comes as gun violence in the city trends downward but remains elevated above pre-pandemic levels.

This Louisiana Bipartisan Law Is Aimed at Curbing Gun Violence: Earlier this year, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed into law a bill that will provide a $500 tax credit to people who buy gun locks and other safety devices. The bill, sponsored by New Orleans Democrat Mandie Landry, aims to reduce gun theft and ultimately violence. It received a unanimous vote in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Community Development Group Lighting the Way to Less Violence in Philadelphia: With help from state and federal resources and a new mayor on the way, a Philadelphia community group is optimistic that the city can reduce gun violence. “We need all hands on deck to get together and figure out how we are going to restore our village,” Nicetown Community Development Corporation’s Mejeedah Rashid told WHYY.

Church Highlights Young Activists During Detroit Neighborhoods Day: Since 2007, Detroit Neighborhoods Day has supported and promoted more than 2,000 community events and service projects. At this year’s event, the Church of the Messiah highlighted its grassroots programs that aim to combat crime and gun violence.

This post is an edition of The Trajectory, a newsletter dedicated to exploring the people, policies, and programs grappling with America’s gun violence crisis. Learn more and subscribe here.