Why School Shooting Statistics Are Still Difficult To Record

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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school shooting statisticsThere are many differences in the way school shootings are recorded, and it is difficult to accurately analyze data to produce school shooting statistics. Consequently, it can be difficult to determine whether the rate of incidents is increasing or declining, what their causes are, and what can be done to address the causes.

On February 14th, 2018, a heavily armed assailant Nikolas Cruz walked into his former school - the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida - and, after activating a fire alarm, shot at students and staff members with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, killing seventeen people and injuring fourteen others.

Following the tragic incident, lawmakers, the public, and the media divided further on the issue of school safety and gun regulations. There is a distinct divide between the people who feel there is a growing epidemic of mass school shootings and the faction that believes the panic about the safety of America's schools is being driven by selectively-chosen school shooting statistics. This divide can be attributed in part to the lack of protocol for the way school shootings are recorded and reported, and insufficient research and data analysis on the subject.

How Many School Shootings Have Occurred in 2018?

After the Parkland School shooting, it was widely reported there had been eighteen school shootings in 2018. This figure was taken from the everytownresearch.org database – a database founded after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2013.The organization defines a school shooting as every incident in which a firearm is discharged on school premises, whether it is deliberate or accidental. The data is irrespective of anybody being injured or killed but includes these incidents in the system as well.

By comparison, the Mother Jones mass shootings database - which lists every mass shooting in the U.S. in which three or more people have been killed - only includes Parkland in its database for 2018. In contrast, the “List of School Shootings in the U.S.” lists nine incidents in 2018 (up to March 7th, 2018), resulting in twenty-three deaths and forty-two injuries.

Why Compiling School Shooting Statistics is so Difficult

In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a comprehensive study of school-associated violent deaths. It analyzed 323 events between 1992 and 1999, with the objective of identifying the source of firearms used in each event to make recommendations about future school safety measures. Among their findings, researchers discovered the source to be:

  • 76.5% off firearms used in suicide events - but only 37.5% of firearms used in homicide events - came from the family home.
  • 28% of firearms used in homicide events originated from a friend or relative - particularly when the perpetrator had a criminal history or was the member of a gang.
  • 9.6% of firearms used in homicide events had been recently purchased. None of the firearms used in suicide events had been recently purchased, although two had recently been stolen.

Despite being one of the most comprehensive studies of school-associated violent deaths, the CDC report would be an unreliable source from which to determine whether the rate of incidents of gun violence is increasing or declining, what their causes are, and what can be done to address the causes. This is because the study only focused on school-associated violent deaths in which the perpetrator was a student at the school at which the events occurred.

Had the study been conducted today, it would not have taken into account the Parkland tragedy, as the attacker was a former student of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The CDC isn’t able to report more in-depth statistics on school shootings specifically, as the organization often faces legal and financial obstacles when trying to pursue such research. The Dickey Amendment, first introduced in 1996, doesn’t explicitly ban gun research. It does, however, forbid the use of federal funds to be used in the advocacy or promotion of gun control and Congress continues to cut the CDC’s budget. These financial limitations and the ongoing controversy surrounding the gun control debate make it difficult for government organizations to produce meaningful data on school shootings. For this reason, the media will often turn to independent organizations for school shooting statistics, and those reports can vary widely.

The Issue of How School Shootings Are Recorded and Reported

The issue of how school shootings are recorded is raised in a book - “The Wiley Handbook on Violence in Education”. In order to chart the path of school shootings from 1992 to 2015, criminology professor James Alan Fox and doctoral student Emma Fridel had to analyze data from multiple sources before being able to determine between intention shootings, accidental shootings, and discharges of firearms on school premises that did not result in an injury.

The book could quite possibly reveal whether the rate of incidents is increasing or declining, what their causes are, and what can be done to address the causes. However, because its conclusions will depend on the criteria that is used to analyze the data acquired from multiple sources, the book is unlikely to present a defining set of school shooting statistics that will be agreed upon by everyone.

In the meantime, schools can continue to enhance their security measures with a few changes.

School Safety Whitepaper

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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