School Climate & Safety

String of Shootings Heightens Focus on Graduation Safety

By Williamena Kwapo — June 02, 2022 3 min read
A man comforts a young woman wearing a graduation gown within the crime scene of a shooting at Xavier University in New Orleans, Tuesday, May 31, 2022.
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What should be a celebratory season has turned into a tragic one for some communities.

A spate of shootings at high school graduation ceremonies around the country—on top of last week’s tragedy at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas—have put school leaders on alert as more school systems prepare to honor their graduates.

In the most recent of those incidents, an 80-year-old woman was killed by gunfire earlier this week during a high school graduation held at Xavier University in New Orleans. The incident, which came during an altercation between two women in the parking lot is at least the fourth shooting at graduation ceremonies across the United States in a span of two weeks, according to the Associated Press.

Three other graduation-related school shootings occurred on May 19, just hours apart. Shots fired outside East Kentwood High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., during a ceremony for graduates of Crossroads Alternative High School injured two people—a 16-year-old boy from Texas and a 40-year-old man from Grand Rapids.

Minutes later, a shooting was reported at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La., following Hammond High School’s graduation. Three people were shot and one was injured.

And later that night, the Associated Press said 18-year-old Hasani Brewer died during a shooting at Middle Tennessee State in Murfeesboro, Tenn., as Riverdale High School held its commencement.

A dilemma for school leaders

The shootings come as the nation continues to reel from two of the deadliest mass shootings in years—the Uvalde massacre that took the lives of 19 elementary school children and two teachers, and the May 14 shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., that left 10 people dead.

The high-profile violence poses a dilemma for school and district leaders preparing for the Class of 2022 to graduate. According to Ronn Nozoe, the CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, school leaders are on high alert yet also are limited in the actions they can take to stop gun violence from occurring in schools or at graduations.

“Graduations are meant to mark important milestones in student lives,” said Nozoe, “Our members are used to balancing supervision and making sure this is safe and that there’s appropriate security there.”

He added. “You don’t want to have it like armed guards, because then that changes the dynamic.”

Superintendents say ceremonies remain on schedule

A handful of superintendents contacted last week around the country said they would continue their graduation ceremonies as planned.

Mary Sieu, the superintendent of ABC Unified School District in Cerritos, Calif., plans to have five armed security guards at each of the five high school graduations in her district. Heidi Sipe, the superintendent of Umatilla schools, a small district in Umatilla, Ore., plans to have two security guards at that district’s high school commencement, scheduled for this weekend. In both districts, the number of security guards isn’t abnormal, the school officials said.

“We usually have a number of off-duty people as well that are trained and ready just because graduation is a big event for our community,” said Sipe.

Though shootings at schools or school events like graduations can be terrifying, they are statistically rare, and schools are generally safer spaces than most—even now, said Dewey Cornell, a professor at the University of Virginia and director of the University of Virginia Youth Violence Project. But he believes stricter gun laws, along with access to proper threat-assessment tools, and mental health resources could improve the odds for schools.

“The problem is not shootings at graduation ceremonies, but shootings all over the country,” said Cornell. “The underlying problem is gun violence, not school violence.”

Recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that in 2020 firearms surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death for children and adolescents.

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2022 edition of Education Week as String of Shootings Heightens Focus on Graduation Safety

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