Analysis: America has been the land of school killing grounds for 34 years, but only California and Tennessee police have shown glimpses of tactics that work

Photograph Sam Moghadam

I wasn’t a journalist back when the Columbine High School massacre happened in 1999. In fact, I wasn’t too much older than the shooters who were involved in that crime. Sadly, while Columbine had felt like ‘a first’ for most of the nation, it was not a first for Northern California. Exactly a decade before it happened, Stockton’s Cleveland Elementary School had been the site of a mass shooting, one in which a deranged ex-convict named Patrick Purdy started cutting down little children on a playground with an AK-47. SN&R revisited that dark chapter of Stockton’s past, along with the 2017 mass shooting that happened north of Sacramento in Rancho Tehama, in a big cover story it published called “Gripping Ghost Guns.” We had that feature hit newsstands during the 2018 ‘March for Our Lives’ demonstration in the Capital City.
Anyone who read it, or anyone who’s followed the propulsion of similar mind-numbing events around the country, knows that very little has changed from 1989 to the present; and this was especially clear on Monday as news broke about what happened at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. In that terrible post-Sandy Hook turn, three 9-year-olds and three adult teachers were senselessly slaughtered. Of course, it continues to pose the broadest social question of all: Why do these mass-killing events keep happening in America? That question will no doubt be with us for a long time. But the new incident in Nashville is also interesting on the micro-level, at least when it comes to public safety strategy. One of the main lessons that was supposed to have been learned from the 15 people who died in Columbine, as well as the 2007 mass-shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people, was that law enforcement simply cannot show up to an active shooter situation, circle their peripheral wagons as more resources are gathered, and essentially wait until everyone inside the school is dead before they cautiously enter.
If one talks with police and sheriff leaders today, there is general consensus on that point. But it hasn’t always carried over into reality. In Florida’s infamous Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018, which killed 17 people, an armed school resources officer named Scot Peterson was on campus when the massacre began and allegedly ran and hid from it. As of 2021, Peterson was still facing criminal neglect charges in the state of Florida. Peterson’s story might have seemed like an outlier in 2019 when a mass-shooting erupted at California’s Gilroy Garlic Festival. That killer, 19-year-old Santino William Legan, snuck into the festival clad in body armor and holding an AK-47 with a 75-round drum magazine. Yet, literally within a minute of Legan opening fire on the crowd, Gilroy police were coming straight at him – and gunning him down. Swift action from the Gilroy officers kept the body count at three, though the community was still pierced to its core, as the victims were 25, 13 and 6-years old. Nevertheless, it seemed like American law enforcement was adapting.
Then. Came. Uvalde.
There are scarcely words to describe the behavior on display from Uvalde police as they arrived at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022. Not only did their officers literally stand outside the building while little children were being mowed down inside, for an hour-and-fourteen-minutes – even as students who were hiding called and made it clear they were still alive and that killing was still happening – these big men with badges threatened, detained and even handcuffed desperate parents who were willing to do their jobs for them. One wonders if the Uvalde police would have ever gone into the building. They never did. It was federal U.S. Border Patrol agents who eventually went by them, broke inside, and killed the gunman themselves. By that time, 20 students and two teachers were gone.
Outside of the racial justice context, the Uvalde police command conjured one of the biggest black eyes on American law enforcement witnessed in the last 20 years. Yet, one thing is clear from the body camera footage that was released Tuesday in connection to the latest incident at the Covenant School: The five Nashville Metro Police officers who were the first to arrive seemed determined to not be the Uvalde police. Within seconds of Nashville’s officers getting to the school, body cams capture them yelling, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” Footage then shows the five men in constant motion, moving quickly and methodically to clear each room they encounter, until they hear loud rifle shots, at which point they charge straight for the sound. Within seconds they managed to kill the shooter. As terrible as the nine deaths were that day, the toll would undoubtedly be far higher had things played out differently. If these incidents are something the nation is going to keep enduring, hopefully there’s finally been a tactical sea-change with law enforcement, and the actions of the Gilroy and Nashville police officers are now a clear standard.
But of course, we have to confront the greater forces behind these mass-shootings. SN&R has closely followed recent efforts to understand and curb gun violence in California, particularly with pieces like “Ghost of a Chance,” “Gunning for the Source,” “Red Flag of Courage” and “The Future Reloaded.” In March of 2021, we covered a harrowing near-miss at an elementary school in Sacramento, and how it related to possible new tech solutions around school terror. This week, SN&R’s publisher sat down with Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton, who supporters have deemed an innovative force in justice reform and public safety. Among the topics discussed in that Q&A are better strategies for mental health services and data-driven solutions to gun violence.

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