The Heartbreaking Work of Tracking School Shootings
I was in the airport on Feb. 14, preparing to fly to New Orleans when my editor called and told me to get on a plane bound for Miami instead.
A gunman had burst into a high school in Parkland, Fla. We wouldn’t know the number of victims until later, but early reports were enough to convince us that this place we had never heard of—once deemed “the safest city in America”—would soon be central to another round of debates about how to protect students from a mass shooting at school—that rare, yet worst-case scenario.
Education Week doesn’t have the resources to send a reporter to cover every incident of school violence, but we knew we needed to be in Florida. Soon, every detail of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—from the behavior and social media activity of the gunman to its unusual timing close to school dismissal—would become a lens used to examine the safety practices of all schools.
When local officials chided packs of media who descended on the city, I understood. For many in Parkland, our collective presence was an early tangible sign of their city’s fresh trauma.
But I am also mindful of communities that never see a single national reporter after violent incidents in their schools. They are spared the media intrusion, but does the lack of coverage make them feel like their losses are less profound? That the extraordinarily awful moments that pierce their lives are just too ordinary for the rest of us to remark upon?
There are the students of Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., who barely made a blip in the news cycle when a student gunman killed two of their classmates and injured 21 others a few weeks before Parkland. There is Sherry Zelsdorf, a teacher at Salvador Castro Middle School in Los Angeles who was returning to work the very day of the Parkland shooting, a few weeks after a student had fired a gun in her classroom, injuring two classmates and piercing her forehead with shrapnel.
Weighing Every School’s Story
Incidents like those drove a team at Education Week to begin formally tracking school shootings in 2018. As consciousness and concerns about these still-rare events rise, no school’s story should be left out of the conversation, we decided. The process of updating our tracker, which involves six people, has become a regular meditation on the complicated nature of school violence.
We started our work weeks before the Parkland shooting, not imagining such an event was on the horizon, and its importance became even more evident after. National media outlets often relied on inflated numbers in their coverage, or they failed to explain what they counted when they stated with certainty the total number of school shootings that had already occurred in 2018. We wanted to provide an agenda-free accounting of these incidents.
We set out to document every incident that people would commonly label as a school shooting, but we quickly realized setting—and sticking with—a simple definition was more elusive than we expected.
The data made available by other organizations was either too expansive—counting every time a gun was fired in a school, even if it didn’t hit anyone—or too narrow—counting only mass shootings with multiple victims.
The core of our school shooting definition falls somewhere in the middle. We count events where at least one person is injured by gunfire, not including the person firing the weapon, and only when it occurs on school property or during a school-sponsored event.
We also didn’t want to limit the incidents we count to those that occur in a school building or strictly during school hours. That might exclude shootings during after-school activities or on playgrounds, which we decided wasn’t right.
We wrestled with that rule at the start of the current school year, when two shootings happened as crowds were gathered for high school football games. “This is not a school shooting,” officials in Jacksonville, Fla., said after one of those events. What they meant: This wasn’t anything like what happened in Parkland. What we concluded: School officials running the event still had responsibility for the safety of the people there, particularly the students in their care.
When Education Week librarian Holly Peele or web producer Hyon-Young Kim flag a news report of a shooting, we are sometimes surprised at what does not fit into our definition. When a school police officer in Dixon, Ill., shot an armed student and stopped him from entering a graduation rehearsal with a gun, we did not include it in our tracker. Only the suspect was injured, and the officer carried the weapon in his official capacity.
The officer had stopped potential tragedy and prevented an incident that might have showed up on our map. In fact, there are many thwarted incidents we never hear about—or students who are taken off the path to violent action well before they would ever act—thanks to committed educators and school counselors who work daily to build meaningful relationships and connect students with the help they need.
Clearly Defined Criteria Guide Our Judgment
Our tracker relies on two key ideas. The first is that our criteria should be clearly defined and consistently applied—likely including some incidents a typical person doesn’t imagine when they hear the phrase “school shooting.” The second is that we should let our readers decide how to respond to the data we’ve presented.
We don’t have a political agenda in presenting this information, though some gun-rights groups have questioned school shooting data collected by a variety of organizations for being far too inclusive in order to advocate for more restrictive gun laws. Our tracker has been criticized by both gun-rights advocates and those who favor gun restrictions.
Because public fears about school safety and gun violence in general are extremely high, nuance and context are needed. In a poll taken by PDK last spring, 34 percent of parents said they fear for their child’s safety at school. That number was about three times greater than after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
That’s despite data that show that, on the whole, schools are one of the safest places for children.
Regardless of what the data say, the fear of gun violence at schools and school events is evident in the real world. In August, for example, 38,000 people attending a rivalry high school football game in Little Rock, Ark., frantically poured out of a stadium, screaming and handing children over walls after rumors of a fight involving a gun set off a chaotic set of dominoes.
The public should be concerned about school safety, experts tell us, but their concern should include the full spectrum of more common possibilities—from the scars of bullying to the dangers of students suffering allergy attacks in schools without nurses.
When our readers look at our tracker, we hope they see it as less of a fixed data point and more of an opportunity to do the same wrestling we do when we update it.
Scroll past the numbers at the top and look at the stories listed in the chart at the bottom. Each of those capsuled stories represents a violent, shattering moment in students’ lives and in educators’ lives.
Do these events fit into the box of things you are concerned about? How do they affect the lives of the students attending these schools? How should that affect ongoing policy discussions?
We invite our readers to also consider a number that isn’t captured by the tracker: the millions of American students growing up doing lockdown and active-shooter drills.
Maybe it’s ok that accurately accounting for shootings in our schools is more complicated than it first seems. Maybe the important thing is that we acknowledge it.