School Climate & Safety

What Counts as a School Shooting? The Answer to That Question Shapes Safety Debates

By Evie Blad — August 20, 2018 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

After shots rang out at a high school football game in Florida Friday night, law enforcement quickly concerned themselves with how the public characterized the event.

“This is not a school shooting,” said Teri Barbera, a spokeswoman for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Perhaps she wanted to ensure the event didn’t stir up visions of a mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla., earlier this year.

Spectators, including many students and school staff, in Wellington, Fla., panicked at the sound of gunfire Friday and rushed to evacuate the stadium after police said two gunmen outside the venue shot and injured two men in what appeared to be a “targeted act of violence.”

“This was not a random act of violence and had no bearing on the Palm Beach Central or William T. Dwyer High Schools, students, faculty and/or staff,” Barbera said, referring to the two schools gathered for a pre-season football game.

How educators, policymakers, and the public at large classify shootings like the one Friday night matters, because what’s consider a “school shooting” affects larger school safety debates and the policy changes that result from them.

But it’s hard to argue that the Palm Beach County incident had “no bearing” on the schools involved. Social media posts show hundreds of students fleeing in fear. The district cancelled athletic events afterward and plans new security procedures at its games.

School safety conversations are often narrowly focused

Students around Florida have been on edge since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the Broward County school district, which neighbors Palm Beach County. In that context, law enforcement and school officials have an interest in clarifying that Friday’s event was not intended to be a random, rampage shooting that many people picture when they think of a “school shooting.”

Those type of attacks—like the ones that happened at Parkland; in Santa Fe, Texas; and in Newtown, Conn.—are at the center of many discussions of school safety. Witnesses appearing at the post-Parkland federal safety commission chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, for example, have focused most of their discussions on large attacks that happen inside school buildings during the school day. They’ve mentioned smoke cannons that can be deployed in hallways to confuse mass shooters, arming teachers to quickly respond to classroom attacks, and other ways to “harden schools.”

Few witnesses have discussed how schools should respond if a gunman opens fire on a school playground, which happened in Townville, South Carolina, in 2016, or if safety concerns emerge in school parking lots or at outdoor school sporting events. In those situations, school personnel must rely more heavily on smart procedures and preparation than on costly equipment, safety experts say.

School safety debates often leave out afterschool programs and athletics, said Lou Marciani, the director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi. The organization, formed in 2006, initially focused on intercollegiate athletics and large, community events like marathons. But it has grown to develop best practices for high school sporting events and afterschool activities.

“People have been very myopic about only looking at the school day,” Marciani said.

At athletic events where large numbers of people gather in a relatively small space, schools should be concerned about training all staff and volunteers about emergency plans, coordinating with law enforcement, and preparing for crowd control in response to events like shootings, fights, or severe weather, say the center’s best practices for interscholastic sports safety, which were created in consultation with school administrators around the country. Those guidelines recommend at least one staff person for every 250 spectators and plans to communicate with large crowds of people, even using megaphones to direct them.

The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security teamed up with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop a free online course on risk management for interscholastic activities that will be released in late October, Marciani said. And it will meet with school administrators in Katy, Texas, next spring to offer in-person training.

What counts as a school shooting?

So was the Florida shooting during the football game a school shooting? Answering that question is more complicated than it may seem at first.

Education Week included the event in our school shooting tracker because it meets all of our criteria, which refer to incidents:

  • where a firearm was discharged;
  • where any individual, other than the suspect or perpetrator, has a bullet wound resulting from the incident;
  • that happen on K-12 school property or on a school bus; and
  • that occur while school is in session or during a school-sponsored event.

Several organizations track school shootings, using varying criteria, as I explained earlier this year:

Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that advocates for more-restrictive gun laws, includes in its count any incident in which “a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds,” including on the campuses of colleges and universities. That count includes suicides and incidents that did not result in injuries, like the accidental discharge of a security guard’s weapon. Other organizations only track mass shootings, using differing criteria for what is involved in such incidents. Those lists leave out many school shootings that don’t meet the minimum threshold for injuries and deaths, but that still had significant effects on schools and communities. Federal data on school shootings are limited. The annual Indicators of School Crime and Safety Report—assembled by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education—only tracks violent deaths in schools, breaking them into categories of suicides and homicides. But that data do not specify what, if any, weapons were used in those incidents, and they don’t include a breakdown of firearm injuries in schools.

What matters most is that the criteria are clear and consistent. Every tracker will likely include some incidents that many people wouldn’t envision when they hear the term “school shooting,” and some incidents will be excluded.

For example, Education Week‘s count doesn’t include suicides. That’s not because suicides aren’t a serious concern for schools. Rather, it’s because there are some distinctly different safety and prevention considerations involved for self-inflicted incidents. Our count also didn’t include an attempted school shooting at a high school graduation rehearsal that was thwarted when a school police officer shot the would-be gunman, who was the only one injured.

On the other hand, we do count some incidents others might not, like a shooting in a Pennsylvania high school parking lot during a basketball game that didn’t involve students or staff. The justification? Even shootings that aren’t targeted at students affect them. And the presence of an unauthorized gun in a school or at a school event raises questions about safety procedures.

The conversation matters because “school shootings” are more likely to look like a small, targeted event than a mass attack like what happened in Parkland. And our popular understanding shapes policy decisions and priorities.

School shootings are rare

Experts say school safety conversations should be much broader, expanding beyond gun violence to consider issues like bullying, student fights, severe weather, and prevention efforts.

That’s because school shootings remain statistically rare, and federal data show that, by many measures, schools have actually gotten safer over time. But that data hasn’t quelled public fear about such events.

Read more about what we know about school shootings in this Education Week explainer: School Shootings: Five Critical Questions.

Photo: William T. Dwyer High School cheerleaders walk past a roadblock following a shooting incident at a practice football game between Dwyer and Palm Beach Central High School on Aug. 17, in Wellington, Fla. --Joe Skipper/AP

Related reading on school safety:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.