News of a school shooting in Arlington, Texas, that injured four people made headlines on Wednesday—but for some, it felt like a heartbreaking inevitability. It was the 14th school shooting this academic year, and the second school shooting this month, that killed or injured at least one person, according to an Education Week tracker.
While school shootings remain relatively rare, data show that the start of this school year has been particularly violent compared to previous years. Gun-control advocates attribute the rise in shootings to students’ high levels of anxiety and stress due to the pandemic, and the fact that 5.4 million children live in homes with an unsecured, loaded firearm.
“It is an absolute formula for a horrible school opening, and that is exactly what has taken place,” said Joe Erardi, a school safety consultant for AASA, The School Superintendents Association, on a press call Thursday. Erardi served as superintendent of schools in Newtown, Conn., after that district’s deadly elementary school shooting in 2012.
Between Aug. 1 and Sept. 15, there were at least 30 instances of gunfire on school grounds—meaning K-12 schools or colleges and universities—that killed five and wounded 23, according to data from Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group. The group says this is the most instances of people shot by guns in the back-to-school period since it began tracking gunfire on school grounds in 2013.
Everytown uses a broad definition of school shootings: It counts any time a gun discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus, and also includes incidents where there was no death or injury.
Education Week also tracks shootings on K-12 school grounds that killed or injured at least one person. Its tracker, which has been ongoing since 2018, doesn’t include suicides or incidents that involve accidental discharge of weapons carried by law enforcement officers that don’t kill or harm.
Under this more narrow definition, Education Week has counted 22 school shootings in 2021, and 14 since the start of this school year. Six people have been killed—including four children—and 31 have been injured over the course of the calendar year. There have been more school shootings at this point in the year than in 2020, 2019, or 2018.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting shift to remote learning, interrupted the trend of school shootings, the data show, as there were only 10 shootings in all of 2020 compared to 25 in 2019 and 24 in 2018.
“Sadly, back to school has meant back-to-school shootings in too many communities across the country,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun safety group, on the press call. “Every instance of gunfire on school grounds shakes a community and makes it harder for students and teachers to feel safe in schools.”
Gun violence in the United States spiked in 2020, and this year is on pace to be the worst year for gun violence in decades, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. Those on the press call, including National Education Association President Becky Pringle and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, said it’s critical for Congress to enact gun-control measures to protect students both on and off school grounds.
“When will enough be enough?” Weingarten said. “When will shooting in a school or outside of school be so heinous, so terrible, so graphic, such a loss of life that our country—like so many other countries in the world—will institute common-sense gun measures?”
The teachers’ unions and Everytown for Gun Safety are calling on the Biden administration to direct the Department of Education to publish guidance on how school districts should communicate with parents about safely securing firearms at home and to direct the Department of Justice to enforce laws that prevent underage students from purchasing firearms.
Watts said Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action have been lobbying school boards to require schools to notify and educate parents about the importance of secure firearm storage. About 1.5 million of the country’s 50.7 million schoolchildren live in a district that does so, the groups say.
In the Arlington shooting, it’s so far unclear how the 18-year-old shooter accessed the gun that he used to open fire after a fight occurred in the classroom. Watts said this information is vital: “If we don’t understand how children and teens are accessing loaded guns, it makes it that much harder to solve the problem.”
Schools must carefully consider prevention, advocates say
Everytown for Gun Safety and the two national teachers’ unions warned against schools further traumatizing students by certain preventative measures, including arming teachers with guns, holding active-shooter drills, and adding armed police officers to schools.
Active-shooter drills, in which students and educators are asked to practice how to respond to simulated shootings, are controversial. The staff training exercises can include tactics such as having law enforcement officers fire blanks in hallways to demonstrate the sound of gunfire, pelt teachers with projectiles, and show video footage from actual shootings. Instead, many school safety experts say that lockdown drills, in which students are taught to sit quietly in a locked classroom out of view from the door, are a best practice.
The teachers’ unions have also expressed concerns about schools employing police officers, who disproportionately arrest Black students. Since May 2020—after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer—at least 33 school districts have eliminated school police officers, according to an analysis by Education Week.
Instead, schools need to bolster their mental health services and implement programs to help staff intervene when they see a student exhibiting troubling signs, the NEA’s Pringle said.
Teenagers who turn to gun violence often feel like they have no one to talk to or depend on, said Erardi, the school safety consultant. Educators should try to reach all students, either formally or informally, so that “every child is connected,” he said.
This work is critical, Erardi said, because potential shooters often plan their course of attack for months or even years.
“As we speak, someone somewhere is trying to think through and orchestrate how that person can move forward for the largest mass shooting in America,” he said.