Power & Market

It Turns out School Shooting Data Is Vastly Inflated

On Monday, National Public Radio revealed that two-thirds of school shootings reported in 2015-2016 never actually happened.

Morning Edition reports:

This spring the U.S. Education Department reported that in the 2015-2016 school year, “nearly 240 schools ... reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting.” The number is far higher than most other estimates.

But NPR reached out to every one of those schools repeatedly over the course of three months and found that more than two-thirds of these reported incidents never happened. Child Trends, a nonpartisan nonprofit research organization , assisted NPR in analyzing data from the government’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

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.

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 .

...A 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. ...

...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.”

Here’s the report. The false claims appear on page 2:

Nearly 240 schools (0.2 percent of all schools) reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting, and over 100 schools (0.1 percent of all schools) reported a school-related homicide involving a student, faculty member, or staff member. About 1 out of every 100,000 students was enrolled in a school that reported a school-related shooting or school-related homicide during the 2015–16 school year.

The government’s definition of shooting includes “any discharge of a weapon at school-sponsored events or on school buses” even if no one is hurt. It’s true that few would welcome news that someone is firing guns at their child’s school, even if it resulted in no injuries. And, as NPR reports, the number that would be a rate of shootings, and a level of violence, much higher than anyone else had ever found.

However, once data like this makes it into the news, the 240 incidents are reported as “shootings” which strongly implies the presence of physically harmed victims. Moreover, even if we include all firearm discharges into the data, it appears that a great many of schools that reported “shootings” can’t remember them happening.

These sorts of substantial data discrepancies are part of a larger tendency not only to inflate the numbers, but also to blur the line between mass shooting, school shooting, and shootings that don’t even take place near any classroom.

For example, back in February, at least one gun-control activist group was claiming that 18 “school shootings” had already occurred this year.

These shootings were usually brought up in the context of massive news coverage of multi-victim mass shootings. Many of these, shootings, however, hardly fit the bill of what ordinary people would imagine a school shooting to be. For example, as John Cox and Steven Rich in the Washington Post reported, one often-cited list of school shootings included a case in which

On the afternoon of Jan. 3, a 31-year-old man who had parked outside a Michigan elementary school called police to say he was armed and suicidal. Several hours later, he killed himself. The school, however, had been closed for seven months. There were no teachers. There were no students.

Other cases include, according to CNN :

The list also includes multiple cases of single individuals being shot in apartments and dorms on the campus, including “an incident from Jan. 20, when at 1 a.m. a man was shot at a sorority event on the campus of Wake Forest University.”

By May, media outlets were using this data and similar data to claim that 2018’s tally was already up to 22.

These events are all certainly unfortunate, violent, and unjust, but describing them generally as “school shootings” is questionable. After all, the statistics are generally used with the intent of invoking images of mass shootings like the Columbine massacre.

Moreover, confusing mass shootings with a domestic shooting in an on-campus apartment blurs lines between suggested policy responses. Mass shootings such as the Parkland, Florida shooting are used to justify restrictions on high-capacity semi-automatic weapons. Most of the shootings listed in “school shooting” databases, however, are single-victim events that could be carried out with a small-caliber revolver. While murder is murder, these sorts of distinctions are relevant to the policy debate. After all, gun-control advocates themselves clearly think the sort of weapon is relevant since they tend to ignore homicides committed with weapons other than guns.

In addition to the fact that recent data on school violence appears to exaggerate school violence, evidence going back to the early nineties shows that school violence has declined over the period. In fact, forthcoming research from researcher James Alan Fox — publicized by Northeastern University — concludes: “Four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than today.”

Nor should this be shocking for anyone familiar with homicide trends in the United States. Since the early nineties, homicide rates have been cut nearly in half. And while homicide rates have been increasing during the past two years, numbers remains well below where they were 25 years ago. And most of that increase in attributable to homicides in a small number of American big cities.


Back in May, I did a FoxNews segment, with former Clinton aide Chris Hahn contending that school violence was at epidemic proportions. He insisted on ignoring all the trend data from the past 25 years, asserting that only the post-2014 data mattered. And yet here we are now seeing that the data he was largely going off of was fabricated. Naturally, he insisted on ignoring the overall homicide data and its obvious trend.

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