SALT LAKE CITY — A third of parents think a shooting incident is likely to occur at a local high school in the next three years, but researchers say that parents don't know much about which prevention tools are effective, and they don't seek much contact with schools about the issue.

Those key findings of a study, "Parents' Expectations of High Schools in Firearm Violence Prevention," were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Community Health.

Despite the fears, researchers and others emphasize that schools are among the safest places for children to be. Of 2,787 gun-related deaths in 2015 among youths 19 and younger, fewer than 5 percent were on school grounds, including both homicides and suicides. They say being prepared and knowing what to do in a dangerous situation is a good thing, but scaring children or letting fear drive policy is not.

"Gun violence is a major issue among parents, but they often have limited understanding of potentially effective interventions," Jagdish Khubchandani, an associate professor of health science at Ball State University and one of the study authors, told the Deseret News. He co-wrote the study with researchers from the University of Toledo and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Blame and fixes

For the study, researchers surveyed parents in the Midwest and found that 36 percent believe their local high school is "highly likely" to be the site of gun violence within three years.

When they were asked what causes firearm violence, respondents mostly blamed parents not monitoring their kids enough or not parenting well, followed by harassment and bullying, inadequate mental health service for children and the availability of guns. Just over half also selected gang activity as a cause.

What parents believe are "very important" causes of firearm violence
What parents believe are "very important" causes of firearm violence | Joseph Tolman

Asked about effective school policies to tackle the issue, parents picked installing a warning system in schools, having law enforcement come up with an emergency response plan, comprehensive security planning for schools, requiring criminal background checks for all school staff and providing a way for students to anonymously report information or concerns about potential violence.

They didn't in large numbers see random backpack or locker searches as effective, nor did they embrace installing metal detectors or bullet-proof glass, which are somewhat common in schools. Parents also rated less favorably having teachers and other school personnel carry guns, which some communities have embraced.

While they have definite opinions about what works and what doesn't, fewer than 20 percent said they'd ever discussed the issue or their ideas with school administrators. And few knew if the local school had changed policies or done extra planning regarding school violence.

Evidence-based prevention

Much of what parents expressed in the survey is not backed by evidence, said Khubchandani. He called out inadequate mental health care for youths as unlikely to impact the violence much, since "nationwide studies find children in the United States who have mental illness are responsible for less than 5 percent of all violence." Stigmatizing those with mental illness perpetuates a harmful myth and doesn't make students safer, he said.

He also noted background checks for school staffers might be good for other things, but would have little impact on youths who bring firearms to school.

Khubchandani said parents have some good ideas, but they're not usually scientific in their approach. For instance, while they support having school personnel carry guns, "there's no proof if teachers are armed there would be less shootings or crime."

Just a few of the practices parents liked have evidence that they're effective, according to the study. Engaging law enforcement to draw up an emergency plan and school security plans are effective and helpful, as both parents and schools believe.

One of the best ways to reduce school violence would be to support research into what works, according to the study, which is scant at this point. The study also suggested future research into risk factors for youth firearm violence and how schools and parents can "advocate for practices that are not cost-prohibitive" but are effective in decreasing violent youth behaviors.

The researchers worried that funding ineffective measures could divert money to do things proven to work. But they added that if measures weren't expensive, it might be worthwhile to try them.

When fear strikes

Many policies people embrace are a direct reaction to trauma — both that experienced and that witnessed. And when school violence is broadcast, viewers can feel that trauma, too, said therapist Melanie Storrusten of Atlanta. She is a licensed clinical social worker and the owner of Align Wellness Solutions who was not involved in the research.

In the face of trauma, the brain naturally tries to make sense of what happened and prevent its recurrence, she said. Because trauma and fear make people feel out of control, they try to regain control. "In a very real sense, that control is not something that we can have 100 percent, but we need to regain a sense of safety."

Policymakers, school officials and others should "look at other countries with lower levels of these types of violence and see what their policies are," rather than being "reactionary," said Storrusten. "When we have been traumatized, that fear part of our brain is dialed up and we are not able to be anything but irrational.

"Expecting traumatized people to be rational is an irrational expectation," she added.

Communities can take action, said Storrusten, but they must have conversations and it's a good idea to enlist someone who is objective to help facilitate it. Good decisions, Storrusten said, rely on having some objectivity from people who are not impacted, "because people who are afraid are not good at making decisions. They go overboard."

Just as communities that experience tornadoes have drills, practicing can be beneficial, because it gives students and school staffs practical direction and bolsters their sense of control.

"Then we have to let go of the things we can't control," she said. "That's what's damaging for children — if we're so on-guard, overprotective and fearful that we scare children more."

The view from a school

Because it's pretty rare, few people in or out of schools have Taylor Hansen's experience with school firearm violence. The assistant principal at Union Middle School in Sandy, Utah, was the first school official to respond when a 14-year-old shot a 16-year-old twice in the head on school property after school last October. Hansen also serves on the Canyons School District safety committee that reviews and updates the district's preparedness and incident response manual.

Safety is a top concern for schools, Hansen said. And he's convinced that schools really are safe. "I have worked in schools for 10 years and they are one of the safest places we can send our kids to every day," he said.

Safety preparedness starts with staff planning and training. From a student viewpoint, it begins early in the school year when students learn safety procedures, including fire, evacuation and how to shelter in place. They practice for lockdowns. "We practice so they know what to do and what to expect" across a range of possible, but not likely, dangers, he said.

Teachers are also very well-trained, he added. One of their biggest challenges is finding the balance needed to make kids aware of what they need to do without scaring them unduly. He tells them to begin with "schools are safe. We do everything we can to prepare for your safety. An event happening at school is very unlikely. It's not going to happen, but if it does, we want you to be prepared and safe and we will help you."

One of the most effective safety preparations schools have against violence, said Hansen, is the relationship that teachers, administrators and others form with the students. Security cameras are helpful, but don't prevent violence. Caring relationships do. An adult stopping a student in the hallway to ask how a game or dance routine went is important.

Hansen said schools are open to get ideas from parents, but he's never heard much from parents on the topic.

The school district has done a lot of work to be prepared in case of an emergency and can arrive at any school within minutes to help deal with situations and their aftermath, he said. He knows it works because he saw it in action in October.

If something bad does happen, Atlanta therapist Storrusten hails the "resilience of children," who can rise above experiencing trauma if the adults in their life handle things properly. When she worked with children who were sexually abused, she was stunned by how they can rebound from the trauma.

"In cases where they reported it to a parent, who believed them and acted appropriately, then re-established meaning for the kid — 'this person did a bad thing and they will get their consequences' — the children did very well," she said. "If we can re-establish meaning and safety for kids, they can recover from a lot of things. The problem is when we as adults can't recalibrate and don't feel safe."