How many times a day does a gun go off in an American school?

 

 

We were able to confirm just 11
reported incidents, either directly with schools or through media reports.
In 161 cases, schools or districts
attested that no incident took place or couldn’t confirm one. In at least four
cases, we found, something did happen, but it didn’t meet the government’s
parameters for a shooting. About a quarter of schools didn’t respond to our
inquiries.
“When we’re talking about
such an important and rare event, [this] amount of data error could be very
meaningful,” says Deborah Temkin, a researcher and program director at
Child Trends.
The Education Department, asked for comment on our reporting,
noted that it relies on school districts to provide accurate information in the
survey responses and says it will update some of these data later this fall.
But, officials added, the department has no plans to republish
 the
existing publication
.
This confusion comes at a time when
the need for clear data on school violence has never been more pressing.
Students around the country are heading back to school this month under a cloud
of fear stemming from the most recent mass shootings in Parkland, Fla., and
Santa Fe, Texas.
At least 53 new
school safety laws
 were passed in states in 2018. Districts are spending
millions of dollars to “harden” schools with new security measures
and equipment. A blue-ribbon 
federal school safety
commission
 led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is holding public
events around the country, including one 
in
Alabama 
Tuesday. Children are spending class time on active-shooter
drills 
and their parents are buying bulletproof backpacks.
Our reporting highlights just how difficult it can be to track
school-related shootings and how researchers, educators and policymakers are
hindered by a 
lack of
data
 on gun violence.
“I think someone pushed the wrong
button”
The Civil
Rights Data Collection
 for 2018 required every public school —
more than 96,000 — to answer questions on a wide range of issues.

 

It asked what sounded like a
simple question:
In the 2015-2016 school year,
“Has there been at least one incident at your school that involved a
shooting (regardless of whether anyone was hurt)?”
The answer — “nearly 240
schools (0.2 percent of all schools)” — was published this spring.
separate
investigation 
by the ACLU of Southern California also was able to confirm
fewer than a dozen of the incidents in the government’s report, while 59
percent were confirmed errors.
The Civil Rights Data Collection
dates to 1968. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights administers
the survey every two years. Every public school is required by law to complete
it. These findings often drive public conversations.
For example, the CRDC was the source of recent reports that
black students were 
suspended
from school
 at rates much higher than whites — information that
inspired changes in discipline policy across the country.
The survey has dozens of items,
ranging from how many middle schoolers passed algebra I to how many students
with disabilities were restrained or secluded. It can be completed by filling
out an online form or uploading data.
One item, about “Firearm
Use,” was required for the first time for all schools in the most recent
data collection.
Most of the school leaders NPR
reached had little idea of how shootings got recorded for their schools.
For example, the CRDC reports 26
shootings within the Ventura Unified School District in Southern California.
“I think someone pushed the
wrong button,” said Jeff Davis, an assistant superintendent there. The
outgoing superintendent, Joe Richards, “has been here for almost 30 years
and he doesn’t remember any shooting,” Davis added. “We are in this
weird vortex of what’s on this screen and what reality is.”
“We got wind of it and nipped it in the
bud”
In other cases, something may have
happened, but not the firearm discharge the survey asked about.
The biggest discrepancy in sheer
numbers was the 37 incidents listed in the CRDC for the Cleveland Metropolitan
School District. Roseann Canfora, the district’s chief communications officer,
told us that, in fact, 37 schools reported “possession of a knife or a
firearm,” which is the previous question on the form.
The number 37, then, was
apparently entered on the wrong line.
Similarly, the CRDC lists four shootings among the 16 schools of
the 
Santa
Monica-Malibu Unified School District 
in California. Gail
Pinsker, spokeswoman for the district, says that “going back 20-plus
years,” no one can remember any incident involving a firearm. Their best
guess, she says, is that there was some kind of mistake in coding, where an
incident involving something like a pair of scissors (California Education Code
48915[c][2]), for example, got inflated into one involving a firearm
(48915[c][1]).
Ray Poole, the chief of legal services for the Nassau County
School District in Florida, told us that at one school where a shooting was
reported, 
Callahan
Middle School
, on Nov. 21, 2015, a Saturday, a student took a picture of
himself at home holding a gun and posted it to social media. “We got wind
of it and nipped it in the bud.” No shooting.
The CRDC
shows seven shootings in DeKalb County, Ga
. Police reports provided
to us by that district give a sense of more of the many, many ways the data
collection may have gone wrong.
At Redan
Middle School,
 there is a report of a toy cap gun fired on a school bus —
not a shooting.
The CRDC shows a shooting at Stone
Mountain Middle School,
 but a police report shows an incident
at 
Stone
Mountain High School
 instead.
And district officials provided a
police report showing that there was a shooting after a McNair High School
football game — in August 2016, after the time period covered in the survey.
Unacceptable burden

 

The Education Department’s Office
for Civil Rights received complaints about the wording and administration of
this survey even before it went out.
A June 2014
research report
 commissioned to improve the CRDC as a whole noted that in
previous data collections, districts had experienced “unacceptable levels
of reporting burden.” They complained that the CRDC asks them to report
information that is similar to what states already collect, but in a different
format, or at a level of specificity that they don’t currently track.
Also at issue, the internal report
says, was a “lack of clarity in the definitions of key terms.” When
it came to “Offenses,” the group of questions including firearm use,
districts “indicated dissatisfaction with the categories provided,
specifically that the CRDC categories did not align with the categories used in
state reporting, other federal reporting, and/or their own district
databases.”
As an example of this lack of alignment, the federal
Gun-Free Schools Act 
requires schools in states that receive
federal funds to expel students who bring a gun to school and requires
districts in those states to report the circumstances of such expulsions to the
state — regardless of whether a gun goes off.
The state
of Florida
 asks schools to report “weapons possession,”
excluding pocketknives. 
California asks schools to
report suspensions and expulsions resulting from “possession, sale,
furnishing of a firearm” or “imitation firearm.”
And so on.
There’s also potential for
confusion within the CRDC itself. While this particular item refers clearly to
“a shooting,” the previous item asks about a long list of incidents,
some involving “a firearm or explosive device” and others involving
“a weapon.”
Temkin at Child Trends, who has
long studied bullying and school climate, says this wording “could cause
confusion.”
“Best practices in data
collection are not to include double-barreled items,” she says, such as
asking about a “firearm or explosive device” in the same question. An
explosive device could be something like a pipe bomb or even a firecracker.
NPR submitted a Freedom of
Information Act request to learn more about problems with the data collection,
and we received emails that schools and districts sent as they grappled with
this kind of confusion. For example, the Omro school district in Wisconsin
wanted to know whether a consensual paintball-gun fight involving several
students should be considered an “attack with a weapon” or a
“possession of a firearm.”
Another reason the shooting data
may show these kinds of problems, Temkin adds, is that the item is so new.
“Because this was the first year this was asked of all schools, they may
not have been as prepared to respond to this item.”
And there’s another factor at work
as well: the law of really, really big numbers. Temkin notes that “240
schools is less than half of 1 percent,” of the schools in the survey.
“It’s in the margin of error.”
Liz Hill, an Education Department
spokeswoman, told NPR that “at least five districts have submitted
requests to OCR to amend the school-related shootings data that they submitted
for the 2015-16 CRDC.” The plan is to issue what is called
“errata” to update the data, but the original document will not be
republished, Hill said.
Hill made the point that any
“misreporting” is the schools’ responsibility, not the department’s:
“As always, data reported by recipients is self-reported and
self-certified.”
After we contacted the Santa
Monica-Malibu Unified district about the four reported shootings, the district
emailed the Office for Civil Rights to try to correct the information. No
shootings happened, officials said.
The Office for Civil Rights
responded on July 25:
“The CRDC accepts correction
requests for up to one year from the moment the submission period opens. For
the 2015-16 collection, the corrections period closed on June 30, 2018, and for
this reason your data correction request cannot be accepted. However, a data
note will be included on the data file to ensure users are aware of the errors
you are reporting.”
NPR’s Clare Lombardo contributed research for
this piece. Source: “How many times a day does a gun go off in an American school?”
ClarificationAug. 28, 2018
A previous version of the graphic about uncertainty in numbers
referred to one school where a shooting took place as Madison Junior High, as
it was identified in the CRDC. It’s actually Madison Junior/Senior High.

 

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