Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: Are we sending our kids to increasingly fatal schools, or are school homicides on the decline?

I have yet to come across anyone who claims that violence in schools is something to be proud of – and I would run the other way if I did. Students, teachers, school administrators, law enforcement personnel, and the general public would all like to see less of it. Great! We agree, so now we can address this problem of increasing fatal attacks in schools, right?

Not so fast. Before even approaching the sticky and controversial area of what causes violent behavior, we have a problem with, well, our problem. Fatal attacks, like the recent stabbing at a Connecticut high school, are definitely a problem. But are they increasing?

My first response was a resounding ‘hell yes’ – have you paid attention to the news this year? Do you remember that week in January with FOUR school shootings? That didn’t used to happen! Friends and family echoed this sentiment, saying ‘It didn’t used to be this way.’

Well, citing a 2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, an FBI bulletin from 2011 declares that homicides in schools have been on the decline since 1994. Run that by me again – school murders declining? That doesn’t sound right, but let’s consider the data analyzed by this and other reports.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) compile information from a range of government sources and school surveys for their annual report on Indicators of Crime and School Safety. It’s fairly comprehensive, and the authors purposely stay away from sweeping generalizations, which is why I had a hard time finding the part that declared school homicides to be declining. Here’s what the 2007 report actually says:

Between July 1, 1992, and June 30, 1999, no consistent pattern of increase or decrease was observed in the number of homicides at school. During this period, between 28 and 34 homicides of school-age youth occurred at school in each school year. The number of homicides of school-age youth at school declined between the 1998–99 and 1999–2000 school years from 33 to 13 homicides. The number of homicides of school-age youth at school increased from 11 to 21 between the 2000–01 and 2004–05 school years, but dropped to 14 in 2005–06. [emphasis added]

I don’t see a very conclusive trend in that data, aside from one significant reduction in school homicides at the turn of the millennium. Between 2000 and 2006 the number jumped down and up, which does not make for a reliable pattern. The 2011 Indicators of Crime and School Safety report further weakened the foundation of the declining school homicides claim, as you can see in the graph below.

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 10.33.45 PM

It looks like school homicides were on a downward slope through 2009, though the authors write that all post-1999 data is subject to change as additional information is assessed. This makes confident claims about the data difficult, but we can at least gain a rough idea of the trends from several years ago, if there are any.

So, back to our original problem of whether or not violent fatalities in schools are increasing today, opinions are everywhere, but data is not. It takes time to collect, code, and analyze information, and unfortunately, we are still in what I call the period of data lag, when we know what information we want, but we don’t have any reliable sources to get it from.

That being said, Moms Demand Action, a group formed after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns performed their own study using newspaper reports and other public accounts to document school shootings during the 14 months following the Sandy Hook tragedy. They only report incidents involving firearms, and their findings may not be as accurate as those that the BJS and NCES will report on several years from now, but they are well worth considering in the meantime.

Between December 15, 2012 and February 10, 2014, there were 44 reported school shootings, averaging three per month. 28 people were killed and 37 wounded. The first six weeks of 2014 alone saw 13 school shootings, with four taking place in one eight-day period. In 16 cases, at least one victim was shot after an argument or confrontation escalated and one party happened to have a gun.

With 28 school fatalities from firearms alone in just over a year, we may find ourselves looking at an upward slope on that graph when the next report comes out. But we don’t know, and until we have more comprehensive data at hand, we have room to question:

Has the downward trend reversed since 2009, or are we misperceiving an increase in violent school deaths? 

 

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