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25 Years After Columbine, America Spends Billions to Prevent Shootings That Keep Happening

The chain of events has become so predictable as to be mind-numbing.

A school shooting with multiple fatalities draws national attention to a community shattered by tragedy. Parents across the United States fear for the safety of their own children. They demand policy solutions that don’t materialize. And school leaders feel compelled to fill in the gaps, or at least show that they want to.

That cycle has played out dozens of times in the 25 years since the Columbine massacre, leaving a virtually incalculable financial toll in its wake.

Each day over the past quarter century, America’s schools have opened their doors to hundreds of thousands of students who have directly experienced gun violence at school, and millions more who fear they will, too.

With the goal of keeping them and the adults who serve them safe, billions in tax dollars fund personnel and technology tools designed to enhance security and ward off intruders. Billions more pay for academic and emotional support services that help students burdened by trauma and anxiety.

A massive and inconsistently regulated industry has sprung up to blanket schools with offers of high-tech tools and to advise them on practices that prepare adults and children for the unthinkable.

“Anytime anyone says ‘There is something you could do to prevent a school shooting, and if you don’t buy it, you’re responsible for what happens next,’ it’s very hard for them at that moment to say no,” said Samantha Viano, an assistant professor of education leadership at George Mason University who studies school security and technology.

An array of personnel and tools implemented with the goal of preventing future school shootings is one of the most visible outcomes of the era following the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. School resource officers and security guards have been added to district budgets and payrolls, and schools have installed weapons detection systems, facial recognition software, bulletproof entrance vestibules, and metal detectors.

Yet school shootings have continued and remained a persistent threat for so long that some who survived high-profile school shootings now have school-aged children of their own.

The number of school shootings in the U.S. has increased significantly in recent years, from fewer than 20 per year in the early 2000s to well over 100 in each of the last four years, according to research analyzing federal data. The death toll of mass shootings has also risen over the comparable period.

These events are statistically rare, but many times more common than in other countries. This year alone, 11 school shootings that resulted in injuries or deaths have already taken place, according to Education Week’s tracker.

Sarah Woulfin was a 20-year-old college junior in 1999. She’s lived with the school shooting threat top of mind ever since.

Now she’s the parent of a 4th grader and a researcher at the University of Texas-Austin who characterizes the process of “hardening” schools as a form of “fortification” that exacerbates racial disparities and fails to meaningfully reduce the threat of violence.

“I don’t think we know enough about how much money is really being spent,” Woulfin said. “I don’t think people have done enough alternative modeling to figure out what might be the benefits of spending much less or much more, or the same as what we spend now but in slightly different ways.”

How Columbine kicked off a flurry of investment

On April 20, 1999, two seniors at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., fatally shot 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves. The gunmen had planted propane tanks and pipe bombs, but those failed to explode.

It was far from the first such incident on American school grounds. As early as 1973, a school safety panel in New York City was making recommendations for new policies and personnel in response to violent incidents, The New York Times reported.

But Columbine gained widespread recognition with the help of emerging 24-hour cable news programs. The events of that day spurred calls for dramatic action that still reverberate.

The impact of the subsequent hundreds of violent incidents involving guns on school grounds can hardly be measured using monetary metrics alone.

But even an incomplete tally of the expenses that stem from school shootings offers a glimpse into the central role they’ve played in American society during the 21st century.

A 2011 study of Texas school finance data found that schools there overall spent three times more per pupil on school security than they did on social work; their budgets for security expenses amounted to nearly one-third of what they spent on instruction. Urban schools spent roughly the same amount on school security as they did on health services for students.

A 2021 study examining districts that experienced shootings between 1999 and 2018 found that the violence drove up per-pupil spending by $248 in the shootings’ aftermath. The researchers also found that those districts often lost higher-income students to other districts in the years after shootings.

The biggest and most obvious expense schools have incurred in the post-Columbine era is for security guards and school resource officers. America invests $2.5 billion annually in SROs and another $12 billion in security guards. The latter sum is larger than for any school position other than teachers.

Several prominent studies document the harms that the presence of school resource officers can cause in schools—particularly for students of color, who are disproportionate targets for discipline and surveillance. Some research shows the presence school resource officers contributes to a reduction in certain kinds of violent incidents, but not necessarily for school shootings. The overall body of research on SROs has been virtually non-existent until recent years, leaving many questions unanswered.

But the lack of a strong evidence base hasn’t stopped the profession from proliferating. Some school districts eliminated their budgets for school resource officers following protests for racial justice that swept the nation in 2020—but some of those districts have since brought those positions back.

School districts often hire additional security staff in the wake of a violent incident on their campuses or even elsewhere. Other school leaders see that happening and feel like they shouldn’t be left out.

“If they see one school has 10 security guards, then they want 10,” Viano said.

State mandates for increased security staffing often come without dedicated funding. In Texas, for instance, school districts have recently scrambled to meet a new requirement for armed guards at every campus. But they’ve had to dip into local funds to pay salaries and benefits for those new employees without new help from the state.

“We’re adding regulations, we’re adding requirements, but we’re not actually adding the funding that goes along with it,” Woulfin said.

Some spending decisions in response to school shootings stem from fear of litigation that can cost tens of millions of dollars to resolve—not to mention reputational damage that can deter families from keeping their children in the district or moving to the area.

“School districts see the potential cost of a shooting on any campus to be immeasurably large,” Viano said.

Still, some experts believe policymakers don’t adequately assess the long-term costs of their short-term efforts to curb violent shootings on school grounds. What seems like a prudent investment in the short term might become more expensive later on.

For instance, a push in recent years to permit school staff members to carry guns has spooked some insurers from offering coverage of any kind, said David Riedman, founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database, which catalogs hundreds of incidents from 1966 to the present.

“Who’s paying the cost of a wrongful shooting? Who’s paying the cost if there’s some sort of negligence or failure to act?” Riedman said. “People aren’t thinking about that.”

The long-term costs to students are steep

The reaction to the Columbine massacre set the stage for fatal school shooting events to come, in places like Newtown, Conn., and Parkland, Fla.

“It really draws attention to a particular type of gun violence incident that is large-scale, massively traumatic, and leads one to want to do things to prevent it from ever happening again,” said Maya Rossin-Slater, an economist and associate professor of health policy at Stanford University who has extensively studied the long-term effects of school shootings on children.

Most incidents involving gun violence on school grounds are different from the massacres that draw the most attention—a student brandishes a gun during a fight, a school resource officer accidentally fires a gun, a student or staff member dies by suicide.

“Those incidents are much more common, disproportionately affect less advantaged schools, and nevertheless have really lasting impacts,” Rossin-Slater said.

Her research found that students who had experienced gun violence on campus were likely to earn $115,500 less over their lifetimes than students who hadn’t. Students who witnessed guns on school grounds are also nearly 10 percent less likely than students who didn’t witness school violence to attend college and 15 percent less likely to have a bachelor’s degree by age 26, she found.

In a separate paper, she estimated that students witnessing gun violence at school were 21 percent more likely than students who didn’t to use antidepressants within the next two years.

“Even those who escape these events without any visible physical harm carry scars that could impair their lives for many years to come,” Rossin-Slater wrote.

These long-term challenges demand a different array of potential responses, from increased mental health counseling to expanded programming that encourages collaboration and camaraderie among students and staff, Rossin-Slater said.

Many researchers agree that a quarter-century of evidence points to the need for a new strategy to deal with the threat of gun violence—especially in the absence of broader federal policies that curb the widespread accessibility of guns.

Riedman thinks state lawmakers and school districts should have a more structured system for evaluating whether a proposed solution will make a meaningful difference.

He often peruses the incidents in his database to assess whether a particular proposal would have affected the outcome of those events. In many cases, it wouldn’t.

“That’s a roadmap to evaluate the things based on evidence rather than looking at a vendor’s video about how, in an imagined scenario, their product might work,” Riedman said.

Viano thinks the U.S. Department of Justice should tighten oversight of allowable uses of grant funds it provides to school districts for security tools and safety measures. In general, when districts have money available to them, they’re going to spend it, she said.

That money might be spent more productively on addressing core issues affecting students that may be a byproduct of a culture of violence on school campuses, Rossin-Slater said.

Students who experience shootings at school are more likely to be chronically absent, and teacher retention tends to drop in places where shootings occur. Investing in ways to address those problems is also an investment in safety, she said.

It’s impossible to separate the challenges schools face because of school shootings from the broader challenges they routinely encounter and need resources to address, Rossin-Slater said.

“The schools that already have less financing, the people who have less access to mental health care, the areas where those mental health services are less available, those are the places that suffer,” she said.

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