Vigil for dead at school shooting
Remembering the dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Courtesy City of Coral Springs

Twenty years ago last Saturday, two trench coat-wearing and heavily-armed individuals entered Columbine High School. Within 40 minutes, 12 students and a teacher had been murdered and more than 20 others were injured.

Almost 19 years later, another individual entered the Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, FL, and in the span of minutes 17 students and staff were murdered and 17 others were wounded.  Andrew Medina, a campus monitor and the first school official to see the Parkland killer, immediately recognized him as “crazy boy,” the one he and his co-workers had predicted most likely to “shoot up the school.”

The FBI and Sheriff’s Department received several express warnings from people who reported that the attacker was exhibiting the behaviors of a school shooter and was amassing guns and ammunition.

Have we learned nothing?

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The comprehensive school shooting database created by the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, finds in the 20 years following Columbine, 349 persons have been killed and 674 have been injured on our nation’s campuses.

In Columbine and Parkland, local law enforcement were criticized for the failure to timely enter the school to end the carnage.

Parkland is located in Broward County. Shockingly, officers from the neighboring jurisdiction, Corral Springs, were the first to enter the school, despite the presence of Broward County Sheriff’s deputies on campus when the shooting began. The Broward County Sheriff’s Department appears to be one of very few agencies in the country that failed to incorporate active shooter protocols. These protocols employ the strategy of immediately engaging the armed subjects.

Active shooter protocols save lives. Despite these protocols in 2018, there were more school shootings and fatalities on campuses than in any year since 1970.

Vern Pierson
Vern Pierson

Further, the database reveals that in the last 20 years, there where at least 49 Columbine style pre-planned attacks on school campuses with 104 persons killed and 124 injured. Disturbingly, a third of the deaths (32) and injuries (42) occurred in 2018.

Despite crime being at historic lows, overall school shootings doubled between 2013 and 2018.

Appallingly, in each of these attacks, information known to school officials, law enforcement, counselors, friends and neighbors reasonably should have been used to prevent the attack.

As a career prosecutor, I’m troubled by the fact the greatest weakness in our approach to mass shootings has been to overly emphasize reaction to the first shot fired, and under emphasize the warnings signs, which should alert school and public safety officials to act.

The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, the FBI, Los Angeles Police Department and others including Dr. Reid Meloy know that we can save lives by identifying and managing threats in a coordinated, behavior centered, multi-disciplinary approach.

These experts have recommended best practices which include a central reporting mechanism for suspicious behaviors and ensuring that information is evaluated by a multidisciplinary team.

Moreover, the best practices include implementing the recommendations of the threat management team including therapy and other treatment. They also recommend taking steps to ensure that such persons are not further isolated due to archaic and illogical disciplinary processes such as “zero tolerance.”

I have worked with Assemblyman Kevin Kiley of Rocklin to draft his Assembly Bill 1722. This bill would require a common-sense approach to building these best practices into our regional school safety plans.

Recognizing one size does not fit all, the bill seeks to bring together school superintendents, teachers, sheriffs, chiefs of police, probation officers, district attorneys, psychologists and other policy makers to begin planning for threat management in the best manner for their region.

Virginia and Florida became the first states to mandate this type of threat management approach, but only after horrific mass shootings occurred.

Ultimately, AB 1722 would encourage California to buck the trend by adopting policies before another preventable mass killing occurs.

Vern Pierson is El Dorado County District Attorney and a board member of the California District Attorneys Association. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.