USA TODAY US Edition
Playing with fire
The images of mass killings stay with us, but all too often there are near misses that go unnoticed. In Tennessee, a gun or threat is reported at school every three days.
It was a little after 2 p.m. in August 2007 at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis when a young man entered the building, pulled out a handgun and said, “Everybody get on the ground.” ❚ Earlier that day, he’d threatened school officials who escorted him out of the building as a part of his pending expulsion from the school. ❚ Instead of shooting anyone, the young man bolted out a door of the wood shop classroom. He was arrested about a half-mile from the school, according to a police report. ❚ That event received little public attention. A fight in 2017 outside a Rutherford County, Tennessee, elementary school on orientation day also went largely unnoticed. A student’s mother allegedly pulled a handgun on the student’s father in the school parking lot, but no shots were fired.
“They have control over bringing a gun. It’s the one thing they can control in their lives. And if they had bad things that happened to them that they couldn’t control or protect themselves from or others from, they may go overboard.”
Kimberly Brown A Vanderbilt University professor and director of a forensic evaluation team tasked with conducting adult and juvenile court-ordered mental health evaluations in Davidson County, Tennessee.
Mass killings – generally defined as attacks in which four or more people are killed – at schools are meticulously chronicled. Victims are remembered, motives are studied, new policies or laws are discussed. The horror burrows into the memories of viewers and readers around the world.
Near misses – incidents in which a student or adult has a real firearm (as opposed to a BB or toy gun) at a school but does not carry out a mass attack – happen in Tennessee public schools at far greater rates than in most other states, according to a USA TODAY Network - Tennessee analysis.
From 2001 to 2017, there were 10 slayings at Tennessee schools involving a gun, according to statistics from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Metro Nashville Police.
Data show almost 1,700 state law enforcement reports involving guns or threats of guns at schools or colleges – nearly one every three days.
The USA TODAY Network - Tennessee reviewed 300 police reports filed in response to those threats. Not every report involved a real firearm at a school.
The rate of students having guns at Tennessee schools exceeded the national average every school year from 2009 to 2015, according to federal education statistics. The Tennessee rate was more than double the national average during five of those years.
Why do kids bring guns to school?
A 6-year-old boy in Memphis told teachers he found a handgun he brought to school in 2006 while looking inside his stepfather’s shoe.
A Nashville high school student said in May 2017 he had a SIG Sauer 9mm handgun in the pouch of his sweatshirt because he needed to protect himself walking home from a bus stop.
Kimberly Brown, a Vanderbilt University professor and director of a forensic evaluation team tasked with conducting adult and juvenile court-ordered mental health evaluations in Davidson County, Tennessee, said she was surprised by the number of times officers responded to threats of a gun in a Tennessee school.
There’s no simple explanation as to why a student decides to bring a weapon to school, but young people frequently show poor judgment, she said.
“They don’t think things through like adults do. Their brains are in a constant state of development, especially for males, that’s not going to be complete until their mid-20s,” Brown said. “Kids do not appreciate the risks, especially long term, that adults can see. Their brains are just not wired that way at that age.”
Three motivating factors can push a child to act out violently: exposure, protection or revenge, Brown said.
Children regularly exposed to violence inside their home or neighborhood can exhibit the same behaviors.
“They develop it as a way to cope and as a way to respond to stress,” Brown said. “They’re kind of responding to a violent environment by modeling that behavior.”
Students seeking protection “tend to be more on guard and on the lookout for threats. That’s the way they survive this world,” Brown said.
This group includes students who are bullied or may feel like a misfit. It also includes students who deal drugs or are gang members.
The smallest group of children who act out violently are those seeking revenge. Brown said these students may have perceived a threat or slight against themselves or a family member. They plan their revenge and target specific people.
“The saddest kids, they want other people to know they have a gun. Kids aren’t really that great about keeping secrets,” Brown said. “If someone really wants to do a mass shooting, those are the ones who don’t tell anyone. The status kids, they’re going to want their peers to know.”
Adults also bring guns to schools. On a Thursday night in October 2006, police approached a group of people outside the Melrose High School football field in Memphis. Police arrested a 37-year-old man after an officer said he saw the man fighting with someone else. The man had a .357 revolver in a holster on his waist.
Police checked the gun and realized it should have been in a police evidence room.
Trying to make schools safer
After 17 students and teachers were fatally shot in February at a high school in Parkland, Florida, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam called for a statewide safety assessment of all school facilities and promised millions of dollars to pay for improvements.
On Sept. 25, Haslam and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said all 147 school districts in the state completed their review. The state awarded a total of $25 million in one-time funds and $10 million in recurring money to help pay for safety improvements, such as enhanced door locks, improved visitor screening and shatter-resistant glass. Some districts used the money to pay for school counselors and child psychologists.
The safety review resulted in districts hiring 213 school resource officers – law enforcement stationed in schools.
“A lot of these kids have had very little control over the bad things that have happened in their lives,” Brown said. “They have control over bringing a gun. It’s the one thing they can control in their lives. And if they had bad things that happened to them that they couldn’t control or protect themselves from or others from, they may go overboard.”
There are possible ‘red flags’
Brown said there are some obvious warning signs that should stand out to parents and teachers.
“If the kids stop taking care of themselves, not dressing like they used to dress, seeming more isolated, more withdrawn … those are at least red flags,” Brown said.
Brown stressed there is no inherent connection between mental health and violence. She knows about the stereotypes that teens are always moody, aggressive or distant. But as communities cope with mass shootings at schools, she said it’s hard to be overly cautious.
“Yes, there are normative phases of development, but it’s not normal to threaten to kill anyone or yourself, and that should always be taken seriously,” Brown said.