In brief - Schools should undertake a security risk assessment and implement reasonably practicable controls to address the risks of large-scale unpredictable violent incidents occurring at school and to fulfil their obligations under work health and safety laws in Australia
The unimaginable nightmare of a school shooting in Australia cannot be dismissed as something that is only capable of occurring in the United States. In this article we examine a recent tragedy in the United States and pose the question: could this occur in Australia?
United States school shooting
On 24 May 2022, a teenage gunman killed 19 children and two teachers after storming into Robb Elementary School in Texas, making it the country's worst school shooting in nearly a decade. It was the twenty-seventh shooting in a US school this year. The motive is unknown.
On 27 May 2022, in response to the massacre, former President of the United States, Donald Trump said at a National Rifle Association convention in Houston that what is needed in the US is "a top-to-bottom security overhaul of schools all across our country." Trump told a crowd of supporters that schools in the US should be reformed so that "Every building should have a single point of entry", and that "There should be strong exterior fencing, metal detectors and the use of technology to make sure no unauthorised individual can ever enter the school with a weapon."
It is horrifying to even contemplate that schools in the United States have reached a point where they are being modelled on prisons (to keep offenders out rather than in) and that armed police officers are being suggested as a remedy to school violence.
Could it happen in an Australian school?
While no school principal, teacher, parent or student in Australia wants to imagine the scenario, the question for Australian schools is: could we have a school shooting of a kind that occurred in Texas in an Australian school? Unsurprisingly, most schools in Australia will be woefully unprepared for a large-scale unpredictable violent incident.
Publicly accessible data indicates that since 1991, Australia has experienced six school shootings. Two of these shootings were at La Trobe University and Monash University in Victoria, resulting in a total of three deaths. The other four shootings did not have any deaths. The most recent school shooting in Australia was at Modbury High School in Adelaide on May 7, 2012, which resulted in no deaths and no injuries.
According to a paper titled Mass shootings and firearm control: comparing Australia and the United States by the Australian Institute of Criminology, it is very difficult to determine what factors lead to acts of violence such as mass shootings in schools because the motives are almost unknowable. Many of the offenders commit suicide or are killed by law enforcement before they are apprehended. The authors of the paper indicate that "broader examinations of discrete mass shooting incidents are increasingly focused on issues such as social isolation and disaffection, economic problems, mental health and the challenging setbacks [experienced by offenders] in important social, familial and vocational domains."
What we do know in Australia is that weapons are more difficult to obtain due to gun control laws introduced by the Howard government following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, but this does not eliminate the risk that one day a similar crime could occur in an Australian school.
The Australian Institute of Criminology paper reports that 12 mass shooting incidents (non-schools) occurred in Australia in the 33-year period between 1981 and 2013, with the death of 97 people from gunshot wounds. The largest number of victims from a single incident was 35 people killed at Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996. Excluding this incident, there were an average 5.6 victims per mass shooting event. Over the same time period, 73 mass shooting incidents occurred in the US. A total of 576 people died from gunshot wounds. The US experienced at least one mass shooting in all but four of the 33 years between 1981 and 2013.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, 18.3% of the mass shootings in the US between 1981-2013 occurred in a school or educational facility. In all but two of the 13 mass shootings at schools, the offender was a previous or current student.
A publication for schools in the United States prepared by the California Department of Industrial Relations entitled “Preventing and Preparing for an Active Shooter Incident” states that school environments where "bullying, harassment and other mistreatment are common might lead some students to pursue direct retaliation through gun violence or other physical attacks." For this reason, schools in California were encouraged to consider a security strategy, which included hiring security personnel, as part of building a positive school climate.
What safety protocols might schools in Australia put in place?
A study by Alfred University in New York asked students: "If you heard a student talking about shooting someone at school what would you do?". The study found only about 50% the students would tell an adult. These results indicate that all schools must be proactive in managing the risk of unpredictable violent incidents on school premises.
Schools in Australia should undertake a security risk assessment considering the whole of school grounds and buildings, students, staff, parents, contractors and visitors. One safety control measure may be the development of physical and situational measures to dissuade offences from taking place, to the extent reasonably practicable.
The model Work Health and Safety Acts in place in most states and territories of Australia (WHS laws) require each workplace to assess and implement reasonably practicable controls to manage the risks to health and safety of employees, students and other persons on school premises and grounds.
Some safety measures schools in Australia could consider in the event of an unpredictable violent incident include:
Review all internal and external entry points to the school and determine how access to classrooms can be impeded and restricted to unathorised individuals.
Doors to classrooms be reviewed and be lockable from the inside and entry points between multiple classrooms be reviewed.
Emergency exit drills be rehearsed with staff and students, similar to fire drills but adapted to the situational response posed by an armed offender in the same way that banks have trained staff relating to armed robberies.
Schools that have repeated instances of serious student harassment, bullying and other mistreatment should consider hiring security personnel to guard against the risk of student acts of retaliatory violence.
Install bollards outside the school at any access points considered to be particularly vulnerable to unauthorised vehicles.
Ensure management teams in schools have a tactical and situational safety and school lockdown plan in the event of an unpredictable violent incident with key response outcomes known and practised in advance.
Invest in diagnostic tools that might assist in the identification of students who display violent pathologies or are socially isolated or disaffected and ensure appropriate support and counselling is provided.
Consider the risk profile of parents and past students and any security risks these may pose.
Ensure every school parent, visitor and contractor, entering the school, attends one location to be assessed prior to receiving the school site induction and signing the attendance register.
Managing the risks to students, staff and others at school is a key requirement of the WHS laws in Australia. School must consider how they would respond in the event of a large-scale unpredictable violent incident. Undertaking a school security risk assessment and implementing reasonably practicable controls in the event of unpredictable violent incidents will acquit this safety duty and contribute to the safety of students and staff.
This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2023.