Were it not for the young age of the shooter, a recent Virginia incident—in which police say a 6-year-old boy shot and wounded his teacher—would not have made national news, a researcher who tracks gun violence in schools said.
While the Jan. 6 shooting in a Newport News elementary school classroom has fueled needed conversations about student safety and responsible gun storage, incidents of a similar scale happen regularly, and they too often go unnoticed, said David Riedman, who independently tracks when guns are fired or brandished on school grounds.
“This plays out hundreds of times a year,” Riedman said as police released more details about the Newport News shooting. “This is just one of the rare times anyone knows about it.”
Instead, policymakers tend to focus school safety conversations on the rare instances of mass violence, like the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
While the concern about a young student firing a weapon is justified, many other cases of school violence receive little national attention, Riedman said. And that may lead to a lack of public understanding about the way they affect students and educators, he said.
Just a few weeks into 2023, there have been three school shootings that have resulted in injuries or deaths, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker.
The tracker counts incidents where at least one person, other than the individual firing the weapon, is injured by gunfire on school property when school is in session or during a school-sponsored event.
That criteria is narrower than what some other organizations use. Riedman’s K-12 School Shooting Database, for example, tracks incidents in which a gun “is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason” at any time of day. The database—which was associated with the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security until July 2022—has counted 14 such incidents in January.
Many of those incidents have shaken students and educators, though media attention often fades after a single news alert, Riedman said.
Little attention, lasting effects
For example, Cleveland’s John Adams College and Career Academy high school closed for two “calamity days” this week after an 18-year-old student was shot and killed at a bus stop near the school Tuesday.
Chaos broke out in a Portland, Ore., high school gym Sunday as spectators at a basketball tournament reacted to the sound of a gun shot in the parking lot.
“These isolated shootings have a profound impact, yet they rarely get any attention,” Riedman said.
That same philosophy motivates the team that maintains Education Week’s tracker, which aims to show the range of shooting incidents in schools to add depth and nuance to conversations about safety, guns, and student well-being. Education Week librarians, reporters, and editors scour local news reports and confirm details about the incidents before adding them to the database. Often, only a few individuals are involved in an incident.
There were 51 school shootings with injuries or deaths last year, the most in a single year since Education Week began tracking such incidents in 2018. Those shootings varied in scale: Thirty-four had no fatalities, and 28 involved a single person killed or injured.
“We have to understand the totality of [gun violence in schools] in order to really do something about it,” said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn. “If we just say every time another school shooting occurs it’s another Columbine, that’s a false narrative.”
In 2018 Education Week interviewed Sherry Zelsdorf, a Los Angeles teacher who was injured when her student, a 12-year-old girl, accidentally fired a handgun in her middle school classroom.
Though the incident led to many of the same emotional effects for students, it received far less national attention than the Virginia incident did this week.
“It was barely in the news,” Zelsdorf told Education Week in 2018. “I had never feared for my safety at school, and I didn’t think that kids did either. It’s supposed to be like their safe space.”