Schools are increasingly becoming fortresses: packed with metal detectors, police officers, and other measures designed to counter the threat of a school shooter. Six states now even require mandatory active shooter drills.
In the wake of the tragedy of the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, many local, state, and federal officials are responding by promoting an expansion of these measures — some, including the president, are even calling for arming teachers. One Democratic member of Congress in Georgia even suggested posting the National Guard outside of schools.
But ideally, policy should be proportionate to the danger faced. And that leaves us with a question: Are schools actually increasingly dangerous?
New research released this week by Northeastern University researchers shows that they aren’t.
Criminology professor James Alan Fox and doctoral student Emma Fridel charted the path of mass shootings and school shootings over three decades, from 1992 to 2015. They used a variety of government and nonprofit data sources, including data collected by the FBI, USA Today, and Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that advocates for gun reform. Their research is the basis of a chapter that will be published in an upcoming book on school violence, “The Wiley Handbook on Violence in Education.”
They found that schools are actually increasingly free of mass shootings, which they define as a shooting in which four or more individuals are killed by firearms. “There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” Fox said in a statement about the research, noting that there were four times as many children shot and killed in schools in the early 1990s as today.
More children are killed every year drowning in pools or in bicycle accidents than in school shootings, Fox added. Over the past 25 years, around 10 students per year were killed in gunfire at school. To put that into perspective, in the fall of 2017, around 56 million students attended public and private public elementary and secondary schools.
In an interview with The Intercept, Fridel made clear that the researchers are not using this data to argue against all school safety measures, gun law reforms, or expanded access to mental health care. Their intent, rather, is to put the scope of the problem in the proper perspective — allowing for a reasoned response that doesn’t needlessly scare people or encroach on civil rights.
“A lot of the measures that people are suggesting such as increased gun control or increased mental health services — those are great ideas that we should do in general for looking at gun violence in America or mental health in America, but mass murders are so rare that they should not be driving policy,” Fridel said. “If you change gun laws, you’re likely not necessarily going to affect mass murders because they’re such unpredictable events. But it’s a worthwhile endeavor to work on changing gun laws in order to prevent more common incidents or single-victim shootings, whether or not they occur at a school.”
Mass shootings, as gruesome as they are, claim the lives of relatively few young people every year. In 2016, the Population Reference Bureau found that more adolescents die by suicide than homicide. (Accidents are the No. 1 cause of death.) Almost 1,300 children die annually from gunshot wounds; while a majority are killed in homicides, 38 percent of those deaths are a result of suicide.
Fridel also argued that the push to increase school security may be misguided in light of the data, noting that measures like installing metal detectors and hiring armed guards have been shown to have adverse effects on students. “If you’re very concerned specifically about schools, there’s a lot of different things we can do without engaging in target-hardening,” she said. “It would be a better idea, for example, to increase the number of guidance counselors for schools or have smaller school sizes.”
Those measures wouldn’t necessarily stop school shootings, which are both rare and unpredictable, she said, but they would increase the quality of life for students.
“Having more guidance counselors or having smaller groups of adults that are monitoring children and looking at how they’re doing and looking at warning signs of possible disturbances,” could help improve student mental health, Fridel said. “That’s not just, ‘Oh, they’re going to go shoot their school up.’ That could be, “Are they suicidal? Are they engaging in self-harm behaviors?’ Things like that, which are much more common. It’s certainly a worthwhile goal to mitigate the damage from [self-harm behaviors] as much as possible.”
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