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School shootings are not the new normal, despite statistics that stretch the
James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 3:15 a.m. ET Feb. 19, 2018 |
Updated 9:07 a.m. ET Feb. 19, 2018
If you think that our schools are
under siege like never before, take a statistical trip back in time.
With the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre several days gone but hardly
forgotten, the time seems right to examine closely some of the statistical
hype that made frightening news alongside details of the horrific shooting.
In print and on TV, Americans were bombarded with facts and figures
suggesting that the problem of school shootings was out of control. We were
informed, for example, that since 2013 there has been an average of one
school shooting a week in the U.S., and 18 since the beginning of this year.
While these statistics were not exactly lies or fake news, they involved
stretching the definition of a school shooting well beyond the limits of
most people's imagination.
Every town for Gun Safety reported that there
to have been 290 school shootings since the catastrophic Sandy Hook massacre
some five years ago. However, very few of these were anything akin to Sandy
Hook or Parkland. Sure, they all involved a school of some type (including
technical schools and colleges) as well as a firearm, but the outcomes were
hardly similar. Nearly half of the 290 were completed or attempted suicides,
accidental discharges of a gun, or shootings with not a single individual
being injured. Of the remainder, the vast majority involved either one
fatality or none at all.
It is easy to believe that school shootings are
the "new normal" as has been intimated, or that we are facing a crisis of
epidemic proportions. When schools are placed on lockdown based on an active
shooter alert (which many times is a false alarm), cable news channels
immediately inform their viewers of the danger, and word is tweeted and
retweeted to millions, most of whom have no direct connection to the event.
And when gunshots ring out, we hear the sounds replayed from cell phone
recordings and watch through satellite feed as terrified survivors flee the
scene. It makes a lasting impression, to be sure.
For all those who
believe that schools are under siege like never before, it is instructive to
take a statistical road trip back in time.
Since 1990, there have been 22
shootings at elementary and secondary schools in which two or more people
were killed, not counting those perpetrators who committed suicide. Whereas
five of these incidents have occurred over the past five-plus years since
2013 claiming the lives of 27 victims (17 at Parkland), the latter half the
1990s decade witnessed 7 multiple-fatality shootings with a total of 33
killed (13 at Columbine).
In fact, the 1997/98 school year was so awful,
with four multiple-fatality shooting sprees at the hands of armed students
(in Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ariz.; and Springfield,
Ore.), that then President Clinton formed a White House expert committee to
advise him. Nearly a decade later, President Bush convened a White House
Conference on School Safety in the wake of multiple-fatality incidents
during his administration.
Of course, I don't mean to minimize any of
the one-per week on average school shootings, but they should not be
conflated with the most deadly but rare events.
readers and viewers don't appreciate the distinction when statistics
including non-fatal school shootings are cited whenever there is mass
killing at a school.
Notwithstanding the occasional multiple-fatality
shooting that takes place at one of the 100,000 public schools across
America, the nation's schools are safe. Over the past quarter-century, on
average about 10 students are slain in school shootings annually.
Compare the school fatality rate to the more than 100 school-age children
accidentally killed each year riding theirbikes or walking to school.
Congress may be too timid to pass gun legislation to protect children, but
how about a national bicycle helmet law for minors? Half of the states do
not require them. There is no NRA (National Riding Association) opposing
I'm all for shielding our kids from harm. But let's at least deal
with the low hanging fruit while we debate and Congress does nothing about
the role of guns in school shootings.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Follow him on