Though exceedingly rare (the odds of any American student being shot and killed at school is about one in 614 million), school shootings are sensational headline events because of their deadliness and the scarring inflicted on survivors and communities.
Sober facts, not sensationalized fear, should drive policy, however, and the Oxford High School shooting is yet another tragic example of warning-sign failure amid the nation's sprawling public education apparatus.
Four students dead and seven others wounded at the alleged hands of a 15-year-old student is heart-wrenching news for a national audience--and a devastating loss of staggering proportions for the local school district in Michigan.
This tragedy is even more dismaying because it was so nearly averted. The parents of the accused killer were called to the school just three hours before the shooting after a teacher discovered a graphic drawing depicting a gun, blood and murder.
The student was immediately removed from class and held in the counseling office while his parents were summoned. Questioned about the drawing, he claimed it was part of a video game he was designing.
When his parents arrived, they were asked to take their son home, but "flatly refused," according to school officials. It appears that the parents did not inform the counselors that they had purchased a handgun similar to the one in their son's drawing just four days before.
The counselors then made two judgment calls: first, they decided not to involve the principal's office, and second, they allowed him to return to class.
While these decisions were based on their longstanding tenure at the school and their training and experience, and the lack of prior disciplinary infractions for the student, both proved flawed and fatal.
Like most school counselors, their careers had not prepared them for dealing with a methodical mass murderer (and highly capable liar) in the very midst of carrying out his plan.
For all the safe-school training efforts implemented in recent years aimed at surviving an active shooter, pre-emptive protocols have been conspicuously slow in coming.
This is especially troubling since almost all school shooters share remarkably similar key characteristics and behaviors, including writing down disturbing messages and drawings in advance of an attack.
The Oxford student suspect's note disturbed his teacher so much that she snapped a photo of it with her phone. It featured a semi-automatic handgun pointed at the words "the thoughts won't stop. Help me." It also included a drawing of a bullet with "Blood everywhere" written above it. Between the gun and the bullet was an image of a person who appeared to be shot twice and bleeding. Beneath that figure a laughing emoji had been drawn.
Two phrases--"My life is useless" and "The world is dead"--were written further down.
School shooters also tend to make ominous posts on social media, often in the form of cryptic warnings. Investigators say the alleged Oxford shooter made a series of concerning posts in the days prior to the Nov. 30 massacre, including a countdown to the "return of the devil."
The day before the shooting, he posted a Robert Oppenheimer (of atomic bomb fame) quote: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Below the quotation, the student added, "See you tomorrow, Oxford."
School shooters routinely keep journals detailing their desires to kill students, and often video themselves discussing and/or explaining their intentions. The suspected Oxford shooter did both, according to police.
The repetitive red flags for nearly all school shooters suggest that a few simple protocols could prevent most incidents, with minor inconvenience for students in general.
Most normal kids don't draw gruesome pictures about shooting people, but since school shooters almost always do, that's a good key indicator for initial intervention. If such a drawing is ever discovered, mandatory pre-emptive measures could include:
• Seizure of the student's backpack, locker, purse or any other container of concealment.
• Search of the student and any seized property, including cell phone.
• Immediate search and review of all social media accounts and posts.
Had any of these fairly obvious and minimally invasive actions been taken that fateful morning at Oxford High School, the shooter's plan would have been thwarted and four lives saved.
Kids need to know that violence-laden threats, drawings or behaviors are wholly unacceptable today.
Subjecting any student who makes such a drawing or threat to the rough equivalent of a thorough airport security search isn't unreasonable, and could prove invaluable in pre-empting a deadly crime.
To its credit, the Oxford Community Schools district has since enacted a zero-tolerance policy that includes removal of a student from school for anything "remotely violent," and escalation of the incident to administration and law enforcement.
But there are also proposals to ban backpacks, or only allow clear ones. Districts should resist backward mindsets that attempt to needlessly regulate and police the behavior of 50 million students every year who aren't school shooters.
Impending school shooters give warning signs galore. Oxford's mistake was allowing staff interpretations, rather than mandatory protocols, to guide their response.
Their lesson is unbearably hard, and it's time all the rest learned it.
Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.