School Climate & Safety

What This Week’s Mass Shooting Can Teach Us About School Safety

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 01, 2021 7 min read
A well wisher kneels to pray at a memorial on the sign of Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich., Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. A 15-year-old sophomore opened fire at the school, killing several students and wounding multiple other people, including a teacher.
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The mass school shooting this week in Oxford, Mich., marks the deadliest such incident in the United States since the 2018 shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, in which 10 people died. And it marked a grim milestone: 2021 will go down as the year with a record number of shootings—29 and counting—since Education Week began tracking the phenomenon three years ago.

Four students were killed when a 15-year-old sophomore opened fire Nov. 30 on Oxford High School; seven other people were injured, including one teacher.

Local media recounted harrowing stories from students who had barricaded themselves in classrooms, tearfully texted loved ones, and armed themselves with scissors against a gunman who reportedly impersonated law enforcement while on his rampage.

Recent Data: School Shootings

In 2018, Education Week journalists began tracking shootings on K-12 school property that resulted in firearm-related injuries or deaths. There is no single right way of calculating numbers like this, and the human toll is impossible to measure. We hope only to provide reliable information to help inform discussions, debates, and paths forward.
Below, you can find big-picture data on school shootings since 2018. (This chart will be updated as new information becomes available.)

See Also: School Shootings This Year: How Many and Where

While much remains unclear about exactly what took place this week, Oxford is likely to join the list of locations—like Parkland, Fla., Littleton, Colo., and Sandy Hook, Conn.—that have become shorthand for school violence.

There is no balm for the wrenching grief and difficult questions that the Oxford school community serving some 5,500 students will face in the days, months, and years ahead. At least initially, parents, teachers, and students joined vigils to remember the slain.

According to the Associated Press, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, was a talented artist who loved to draw, read and write; Tate Myre, 16, played on the school’s varsity football team and was an honor student, the football team’s tribute to him on Twitter said; Hana St. Juliana, 14, was remembered for her passion and commitment to athletics; Justin Shilling, 17, was described on the Facebook page of a restaurant where he was employed as a “devoted friend and co-worker... and simply a pleasure to be around.”

Grieving will give way to hard questions—and then to demands for answers.

“My guess this morning is that the Oxford High School community is waking up, and one of the first questions on their mind is: How did this happen here? Much like we woke up Feb. 15, wondering how could the tragedy have unfolded in Parkland the way it did,” said Ryan Petty, whose daughter, Alaina, was among 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

And as happened in Parkland, those agonizing questions have the potential to tear a traumatized community into two camps—those who will seek answers to what specifically might have prevented the bloodshed at the high school, and those who will resuscitate calls for more general solutions like gun control.

So far, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has said it’s too early to comment on what school safety steps the state should consider.

Details have yet to emerge about what precipitated the shooting in Michigan. But nationally, the last few months have been unusually violent both generally and in the view of many school officials and parents, also in K-12 schools. Below are some of the school safety implications that are likely to emerge.

Violence in schools seemed on an uptick before the Oxford shooting

Around the country, teachers, district leaders, and students have been frightened by what appears to be an increase in violence roughly paralleling the return of most students to in-person learning this school year. District leaders have been under pressure to address these outbreaks and respond to a mental health crisis among youth.

Empirical data on school violence trends are hard to come by, but homicides have generally risen during the pandemic, and some kinds of violent crime in schools were on the rise even before COVID-19 hit schools.

EdWeek’s overall trends on school shootings, meanwhile, are paralleled by other collections, such as those maintained by the Gun Violence Archive and Everytown for Gun Safety, both of which have more expansive criteria.

Some criminologists said that the Oxford attack comes as another signal that the U.S. has grievously misjudged its school safety policies.

“We have really failed this generation of kids. Basically we’ve put this problem on their backs. We’ve said you need to go through active shooter drills and metal detectors and have police in your schools in order to feel safe, because we’ve failed to act on other things that would keep guns out of schools in the first place,” said James Densley, a professor and department chair of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, who studies mass shootings.

Gun sales surged during the pandemic. Is that a factor in the shooting?

Among the only clear details yet on the Oxford shooting is that the semiautomatic pistol used in the attack was purchased by the alleged gunman’s father days before the incident. It is not yet clear how the son obtained the gun.

There is no national database of U.S. gun sales; most estimates are based on the number of background checks conducted via the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Instant Criminal Background Check system. Those estimates, though, point to a huge boom in 2020. (Gun sales tend to spike during periods of economic or social instability, according to sociologists.)

By some estimates, nearly 40 million guns were sold in 2020 alone. Gun sales have slowed down in 2021 compared to 2020, but have generally remained above 2019 levels, according to Small Arms Analytics Forecasting, a consulting organization.

“School shooters tend to be children, and by virtue of their age, the only way they can get firearms is either illegally, or from parents and families who have stored them unsafely,” Densley said. “There is just kind of a mathematical formula here: More guns increases the likelihood that guns fall into the hands of kids.”

Little is known about the Michigan shooter, but some details are familiar

The alleged shooter, a sophomore, exercised his 5th Amendment right not to speak to police, and his parents have hired an attorney.

Some news reports quoted parents who said rumors were floating about a possible violent incident at the high school, but county law enforcement has urged caution about leaping to conclusions before detailed investigations are conducted.

While there is no profile of school shooters, analyses suggest that, as in this case, they are almost always men who act alone.

The U.S. Secret Service, in a 2019 report, also noted that most shooters telegraphed their plans, and all were experiencing extreme mental stress.

Oxford High School had taken steps to improve safety

The Oxford district had trained staff and students in lockdown procedures by the ALICE Training Institute, an approach that includes active-shooter simulations, among other pieces. Law enforcement has so far credited this with preventing more bloodshed, though it is likely to be closely scrutinized.

“It is ... evident from the scene that the lockdown protocols, training, and equipment Oxford schools had in place saved lives as well,” Oakland County, Mich., Sheriff Michael Bouchard said in a statement.

Such training is not without controversy. Some school safety experts say it is not research-based and can frighten students. Teachers have reported being shot with Nerf balls during the training. In one Indiana district, teachers participating in the training were hit by plastic pellets, leading to a civil lawsuit. (ALICE Training uses a train-the-trainer model so there is much variation in how programs are designed.)

The Oxford district had also established a tip-line program for reporting threats, an intercom controlled-access entryway system, and taken other safety steps, though apparently the school did not use metal detectors.

The shooting potentially raises new questions about school-based law enforcement

Media reports indicate that a law enforcement officer worked in Oxford High School and disarmed the shooter. (It was not immediately clear whether the officer had had extra training on how to interact with youths, the defining criteria of a school resource officer.)

After the Parkland and Santa Fe tragedies, many districts brought on SROs or were required to hire them by changes in state law. That trend crashed headlong against the movement to remove school police following George Floyd’s 2020 murder; some districts that removed officers in the wake of those protests have since restored them, citing concerns about school safety.

See Also

A police officer walks down a hall inside a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (images: Michael Blann/Digital/Vision; Kristen Prahl/iStock/Getty Images Plus )

Recent research on SROs indicates that their presence does mitigate some kinds of violence but also can lead to unintended consequences—including higher rates of discipline and referral into the juvenile justice system that fall disproportionately on Black children.

To date there is also little firm evidence to suggest that they prevent mass shootings in school, so the role of the school-based officer in Oxford is likely to attract much attention in coming days.


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