Moral Panic as a Result of Public Policies


The moral panic surrounding school shootings initiated advocates for tougher laws regarding youth violence. Scott and Steinberg (2008) noted three prevelate themes that arose from the concern regarding school violence. The first included the notion that young offenders were extremely dangerous, the second being that violent crime occured due to the "soft" juvenile court and lastly that rehabilitation was ineffective in assisting offenders. While the criminal justice system was critcised for being too lax on young offenders, an outcry for public safety became an important concern (Scott and Steinberg, 2008). As a result, the implementations were to focus was on control and punishment rather than academics and performance in schools (Lawrence and Mueller, 2003).


The Media in Generating Fear
The truth is, schools are one of the safest places where students are situated the majority of time (Killingbeck, 2001). In fact, the most common forms of school crime includes minor property offenses such as vandalism and theft (Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1985; National Institute
of Education, 1978; Snyder & Sickmund, 1999; U.S. Department of Education, 1998). However, by introducing such measures, these actions may actually produce more fear among society and thus have created the opposite intended effect (Lawrence & Mueller, 2003, p. 334). Some students, parents, and faculty may come to perceive their schools as unsafe when they see such drastic measures as video cameras, security guards, metal detectors, and otherwise being imposed. At this time when fears are high and beliefs among citizens differ, the media creates the belief that schools are dangerous by supporting such policies and procedures. O'Grady, Parnaby and Schikschneit (2010) argue that when media needs a story for a particular event, but lacks reliable information, they frequently endore pre-established frameworks. The frameworks then work to create a story that will draw attention from an audience in which the result is a reaction of fear. In addition, schools have become a source of business, therefore security companies continues to heighten the fear of consumers in order to gain profit. (KillingBeck, 2001).

Altogether, moral panic concerning school shootings is therefore a viscous, continuing circle, in which stage 3 involves the movement towards the creation of new policies and/or procedures (Lawrence & Mueller, 2003, p. 334):

Stage 1: Occurrence of Initial Event (such as the shootings at Virginia Tech)
Stage 2: Fear Arises in the General Public (for school shootings, fear is heightened in faculty members and parents)
Stage 3: Introduction of New Policies and Procedures (such as the use of security cameras)
Stage 4: Production of Additional Fear in Response to Measures
Stage 5: Media Benefits from this Fear (report on news stories that typically appeal to the fears people have, resulting in more attention)

Security Measures
In the wake of such appalling events as school shootings – and other events such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters - new policies are often proposed and implemented. As a result of public fear following school shootings, pressure is often placed upon schools to implement these new policies (Lawrence & Mueller, 2003, p. 334). For instance, in the months following the Columbine shootings, public concern about guns in schools caused many schools to install security devices to reduce the possibility that similar incidences may occur, and also to convey a sense of school security and safety. A number of politicians in the United States advocated for millions of dollars be allocated to improve sercurity measures in schools. For example, at the time, President Clinton advocated $12 million dollars for project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence) and $65 million to hire 2,000 community police and school officers to work in schools, including another $25 million to develop various school safety plans (Killingbeck, 2001). Other measures were being implemented such as regularly locking doors, having visitors sign in when entering schools and identification badges were used (Addington, 2009). However, Addington (2009) further notes that critics have argured that security measures create a negative environment in which students feel seculed in prison-like atmoshpere or become feared of being at school.

Examples of Visible Security Measures Used by Public Schools After Columbine

Limiting access to school building

  • Identification cards (students and/or staff)

  • Locked school entrances during the day

  • Gated campuses

  • Visitor sign-in requirement

  • Campus design changes

Limiting weapons on campus

  • Metal detectors (walk through, handheld wands)

  • X-ray inspection of student bags and purses

  • Clear-backpack policies

  • Lockless student lockers

  • Removal of student lockers

  • Random sweeps for contraband

Increasing surveillance of students

  • Security cameras

  • School resource officers (local law enforcement)

  • Private security guards

  • Staff training (drills, lock-down procedures)

Reacting to a crisis or violent incident

  • Student drills

  • Duress alarms

  • Telephones in classrooms


    Source: Garcia (1999), U.S. Department of Education (2007b).

Zero Tolerance Policies
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Zero tolerance policies regarding school violence were also implememented among American schools shortly after the 1990's school shootings (Scott and Steinberg, 2008). Zero tolerance policies were in place in order to expell students who brought guns to school, although the policy now includes all weapons, as well as drugs (Cornell, 2003). However, Cornell (2003) notes that many critics have argued that zero tolerance policies are ineffective and discriminatory harsh punishment. Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski and Jimerson, 2010 note that zero tolerance policies have no positive effect on detering individuals or reducing any form of school violence. On the other hand, Leary, Kowalski, Smith and Phillips (2003) determined that bullying can account for a large part of school violence and urge the need for zero-tolerance policies on bullying rather than other policies.


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Profiling and Warning Signs

The faculty in a number of schools have been warned to look for warning signs in the behavior of potential dangerous children (Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski and Jimerson, 2010). The authors note that although it may be beneficial to keep an eye out, there is currently noevidence to suggest the use of a profile of a typical school shooter. Since school shootings are quite rare, profiling and warning signs have been criticized for unfairly labeliing certain students (Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski and Jimerson, 2010). Mulvey and Cauffman (2001) have also argued that attempting to identify school shooters are ineffective and more harmful when used in school settings. Teachers and faculty should refrain from looking for specific signs because each case is unique in their characteristics.