In the 20 years since the April 20, 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, two people who were affected by that day have taken up the issue of student safety.
Darrell Scott, father of Rachel Joy Scott—the first student killed—formed Rachel’s Challenge, a school assembly and training program aimed at increasing kindness and accentuating positive behaviors to reduce bullying and other internal threats.
Patrick Neville, then a 15-year-old who escaped out a window during the shootings, became a Colorado state representative and works relentlessly to protect students from external and internal threats.
Increased Security, Hardened Schools
Most of the discussions that have place in legislative bodies over the two decades since Columbine have focused on the external threats. This has led to hardened school entrances, tightened firearms laws, studies to find ways to identify potential shooters, and debates on whether to allow teachers and other non-security staff to carry concealed firearms.
Currently, 10 states allow concealed carry in public schools, nine states allow non-security personnel to carry, including a new law enacted in Florida on May 8, and 24 states allow schools discretion regarding who may carry firearms.
School shootings are horrific and have directly affected more than 226,000 students at 233 schools since Columbine. These events cause immeasurable grief for the survivors and the families of the deceased and wounded.
‘Reach the Heart of Our Kids’
Firearms shouldn’t be the primary consideration in response to school shootings, says Scott.
“My personal belief is that guns are not the issue,” Scott said on the Heartland Daily Podcast on April 17. “The issue is the hearts of our young people and the influences around our young people.
“For too long we have focused on academics and the head of our child,” said Scott. “And for 20 years we’ve been saying what I said to Congress: we’ve got to reach the heart of our kids.”
Facing ‘Theft, Assault, and Rape’
Shootings, while horrific, are not the only school safety issue students face, says Neville.
Data show students face numerous threats in schools, including more than 800,000 incidents of theft, assault, and rape each year.
“I remember seeing one example where a poor student was forced to sit in class with her rapist for years while the trial was going on, and he ended up being convicted of that crime, but meanwhile she was forced to sit there with this person,” Neville said on April 23 on the Heartland Daily Podcast.
Bullying is also widespread in the nation’s schools. Nationwide, more than 20 percent of students reported being bullied in 2017, with nearly 70 percent of those being bullied multiple times. Repeated bullying leads to absenteeism, with 160,000 students skipping school each day to avoid being bullied.
Bullying and physical attacks are not just student-on-student, either. Many children are bullied by school staff, as reported in the Chicago Tribune’s 2018 investigative series “Betrayed.”
In January 2019, Jamari Dent, an 11-year-old fourth grader, attempted suicide after repeated bullying by his teachers and other students in a Chicago public school. In Berkeley County, West Virginia, a disabled student was subjected to repeated bullying by teachers and staff.
‘Shootings Get More Media Attention’
Self-inflicted teen deaths far outweigh student deaths by armed intruders into America’s classrooms, says Scott.
“For every one student who has died from a school shooting over the last 20 years, the statistics show that roughly 800 students have died from suicide,” said Scott. “And we don’t put as much emphasis on that because school shootings get more media attention.”
Teen suicides are on the rise in the United States. From 2006 to 2016, there was a 70 percent increase in the suicide rate for white teens and a 77 percent increase for black teens. A report by Health Management Associates presented to the Office of the Colorado Attorney General shows two key factors associated with suicide are bullying at school and cyberbullying.
To help students who are bullied at school or face other dangers, Neville introduced a bill, H.B. 19-1112, in the Colorado House of Representatives on January 15 of this year to provide resources to help them escape their dangerous environments.
“We shouldn’t force students to be in places where they feel unsafe,” said Neville, “and we should empower parents to make these proper decisions and prevent those threats from even popping up to a point where they are evolving into a school shooting or other significant safety issue.”
Neville’s bill would have established a program of Child Safety Accounts parents could use to transfer their children from unsafe schools. The bill was stopped in committee on February 5.
Heartland’s Proposed CSAs
Neville’s bill followed a reform proposal for CSAs developed by The Heartland Institute in 2018. CSAs are individual education accounts that would be funded by the state using monies already designated for each student’s education.
“I definitely liked the concept based on my experiences with Columbine, but you look at more situations where this could be used,” said Neville.
Under Heartland’s CSA model, parents would be provided with a debit card linked to a CSA account which they could use to pay for approved education-related expenses at a public or private school or to pay for alternative education opportunities.
Lennie Jarratt ([email protected]) is a state government relations manager at The Heartland Institute.
Colorado state Rep. Patrick Neville (R-Castle Rock): https://leg.colorado.gov/legislators/patrick-neville
Rachel’s Challenge: https://rachelschallenge.org/
Timothy Benson and Vicki Alger, “Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts,” Policy Brief, The Heartland Institute, April 25, 2018: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/protecting-students-with-child-safety-accounts