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school shootings as organizational accidents

School shootings are tragic events that shock and terrify communities—and lead to urgent calls for effective prediction and prevention measures. In a new study in Sociology of Education, Sarah Goodrum and coauthors view school shootings through the lens of “organizational accidents,” a term that captures schools’ combinations of tightly coupled guidelines, loosely coupled structure, and autonomy culture, and reframes shootings as preventable detection and response failures.

To explore the utility of this framework, the researchers conducted a qualitative case study of a fall 2013 shooting in a large suburban high school that claimed two students’ lives. They interviewed faculty, reviewed school and police records, and looked at the institutional and cultural factors that affected the school’s approach to preventing violence. The study revealed numerous issues that compromised the school’s safety measures and contributed to the tragedy. Among them, the school’s inflexible threat assessment procedures gave students a false sense of safety and failed to take into consideration the nuances of individual behavior. The school’s decentralized structure meant that individual teachers often decided on disciplinary measures without input from the administration. And, due to the “culture of autonomy” and “fresh start mentality,” teachers were unable to discuss any student’s history of difficulties. Together, these issues resulted in unintentional secrets and knowledge gaps which hampered the threat assessment team’s ability to evaluate and monitor student behavior.

To better reduce violence in schools, the authors suggest instituting systems and cultures that encourage open lines of communication, teamwork, and adaptability when dealing with students of concern. In addition, they emphasize the need for formal, organization-level harm-benefit evaluations, which would weigh the potential drawbacks and advantages of different preventative interventions for various student populations.

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