Solutions to mass school shootings demand data-driven dialogue

Mass school shootings have continued to make headlines throughout recent years, but some believe a solution can be found in the pages of the past.

Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images, (Courtesy of Google Images)

2/14/2018 – Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, FL. 17 killed.

10/1/2015 – Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, OR. 9 killed.

10/24/2014 – Marysville-Pilchuck High School, Marysville, WA. 5 killed.

4/2/2013 – Oikos University, Oakland, CA. 7 killed.

12/14/2012 – Sandyhook Elementary School, Newtown, CT. 27 killed.

2/14/2008 – Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL. 5 killed.

4/16/2007 – Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. 32 killed.

10/2/2006 – West Nickel Mines School, Lancaster County, PA. 6 killed.

4/20/1999 – Columbine High School, Littleton, CO. 13 killed.

5/21/1998 – Thurston High School, Springfield, OR. 4 killed.

3/24/1998 – Westside Middle School, Jonesboro, AR. 5 killed.

5/1/1992 – Lindhurst High School, Olivehurst, CA. 4 killed.

11/1/1991- University of Iowa, Iowa City, IO. 6 killed.


There have been 12 mass shootings at schools since 1991. Some of the incidents are known by name. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Others, have receded into the larger backdrop of gun violence in the United States. As tragic as the seemingly relentless shootings in today’s society are, it is important to recognize that schools are safer today than in the 1990s. Four times more children were killed in schools in the early 1990s as compared to 2017.  It is also important to recognize that, despite the endless headlines and debates on the issue, mass school shootings are actually rare events. On average, mass shootings occur between 20 and 30 times per year, and only 1 occurs at a school.

One week after the Parkland mass school shooting, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released data that showed decreased crime, suspensions and expulsions last school year.  There were 105 reported incidents of possession of a firearm or powerful explosive by a student compared with 4,289 reported incidents of possession of controlled substances and 9 incidents of an assault using a weapon of any type. Despite the progress seemingly made in schools, the overall rate of mass shootings, is increasing.  This increase in the overall frequency of shootings justifiably causes anxiety and fear, which the public typically wishes to address with urgency.

Eliminating mass shootings at schools must start with an understanding of the larger context of guns in American Schools.

Whenever there is a mass shooting at a school, a wave of outrage and grief follows, but historically there has been little coordinated action to prevent future attacks.  After the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, schools across the country began holding active shooter drills.  In 2014, 88% of public schools had a written “active shooter” plan and 70% had drilled students on the use of the plan.  After 1999, many schools installed metal detectors and require ID cards for entry.  By 2014, the percentage of schools that controlled access to school buildings increased from 75% to 93%.  Between 1999 and 2014, the percentage of public schools using security cameras increased from 19% to 75%.  In 2015, students reported that the three most commonly observed safety and security measures were a written code of student conduct, a sign-in requirement for all school visitors, and the presence of non-security school staff and other adults supervising the hallways.

Security measures appear, on the whole, to have been successful in identifying crime and code of conduct violations.  On-campus arrests for weapons and drug and liquor violations increased between 2001 and 2011 from 40,300 to 54,300.  Since 2011, the numbers have declined but have not returned to the 2001 baseline.  Noteworthy, however, is that during the 2014–15 school year, there were 1.3 million reported discipline incidents in the United States, of which only 5% were related to the possession of weapons.

It is difficult to address the problem of mass shootings in America due to conflicting data and inconsistent definitions of the label “mass shooting.” In 1996, under political pressure from the National Rifle Association (“NRA”), Congress prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) from funding public-health research addressing issues related to firearms.  The prohibitions largely persist today.

In 2008, the FBI defined mass shootings to be a single incident in which a shooter kills four or more people.  Then, in 2013, the agency began tracking “active shooter” incidents, defined as situations in which a person is “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area”; this includes incidents in which fewer than four people die.  To muddy the waters further, after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in which more than 20 children were killed, Congress officially defined “mass killings” as three or more people killed in a single incident.

Taking into account the context of the use of guns by students in all school-related homicides or suicides (including mass shootings), the CDC counted 123 shooting instances between July of 1992 and June of 1999.  Of these 123 incidents, 93.5% of the shooters were male; 26.8% of the shooters committed suicide; 69.1% of the shooters perpetrated a homicide; 15.6% of shooters killed multiple people.

[T]he data reflects a less than one in a million chance that a child will be killed at school or traveling to or from school.

In a 2014 report, the National Center for Juvenile Justice found that the rate of violent crime in schools has dropped significantly over the last 18 years.  In a 2015 report, the National Center for Educational Statistics counted “31 homicides of students aged 5-18 that occurred at school or while traveling to or from school between July of 2012 and June of 2013.”  While the loss of any child to gun violence is tragic, thankfully, the data reflects a less than one in a million chance that a child will be killed at school or traveling to or from school.

Expanding consideration to non-fatal school shootings, Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit anti-gun violence advocacy organization, has tracked 254 school shootings in America since 2013.  The organization defines school shootings as “public reports that a gun was fired inside a school building or on school grounds.”  Of the first 160 incidents, tracked between 2013 and 2015, 84 incidents occurred at K-12 schools, while 76 incidents occurred at colleges or universities.  More than half of all incidents arose when the shooter intentionally injured or killed at least one other person with a gun.  Almost one in six shootings occurred after some sort of confrontation.  Fortunately, no one was injured in 33 of the shootings on school grounds.

All of the attacks were committed by males…71% of whom felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident.  

In 2004, the United States Secret Service concluded that attackers “varied considerably in demographic, background, and other characteristics” and was unable to develop a profile of a “school shooter.”  The Secret Service did find that school shooters shared certain characteristics.  All of the attacks were committed by males, 98% of whom experienced or perceived a major loss prior to the attack, 95% of whom were current students at the school, 81% of whom attacked alone, 78% of whom had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts prior to their attack, 73% of whom had a grievance against their targets, and 71% of whom felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident.  More than half of attacks occurred during the school day and most attackers used a gun as their primary weapon; 61% used handguns and 49% uses rifles or shotguns. Three quarters of attackers used only one weapon, although nearly half of them carried multiple weapons during the attack.

Over the past 35 years, there have been only five cases in which someone age 18 to 20 used an assault rifle in a mass shooting.  The CDC report also analyzed where shooters acquired the weapons used to carry out the 123 attacks.  It found that between 1992 and 1999, 37.5% of weapons used in mass shootings came from the shooter’s home, while 23.4% came from a friend or relative.  Multiple victim events were more likely to be carried out with guns acquired from the home compared to single victim events.

Statisticians conducted an in-depth study of gun violence in America and analysis of many proposed solutions.  The best ideas left standing were narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims and not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns.  The largest category of gun violence victims are those who die by suicide.  They make up two-thirds of all gun-related deaths in the United States, more than 85% of which are males and half of which are over the age of 45.

The next largest category of gun violence victims, approximately 12,000 annually, are victims of homicides, making up one-third of gun-related deaths.  More than half of the victims are young men, two-thirds of whom are African American.  Women make up about 1,700 gun-related deaths annually, mostly as victims of incidents of domestic violence.  The remaining deaths are due to gun-related accidents or other undetermined causes.

As stated in a Washington Post op-ed, “a reduction in gun deaths is most likely to come from finding smaller chances for victories and expanding those solutions as much as possible.” The article goes on to state, “We save lives by focusing on a range of tactics to protect the different kinds of potential victims and reforming potential killers, not from sweeping bans focused on the guns themselves.”

Successful solutions to violence take into account the unique role violence plays in the legal and sociocultural context.

Attacks in schools are rare in Japan, a country in which guns are practically non-existent.  “Security measures at Japanese schools became compulsory only after a June 2001 attack at an Osaka elementary school, where eight children were stabbed to death and 15 others were injured by an intruder.”  Schools are protected by gates which are usually closed during school hours, and all visitors must wear passes to enter school premises.

Schools are required to have an emergency manual in case of crime or accident.  Some schools have security cameras while others have teachers who take turns patrolling during breaks or lunchtime.  Schools, PTAs, and students set up commuting routes and draw safety maps along which parents or neighborhood volunteers usually stand to watch kids as they walk to and from school.  Additionally, children often carry personal alarms that they can use in an emergency.

After terror attacks in Paris and Nice, France introduced new security guidelines at schools for when children returned in September 2016.  Measures included tighter screening of people entering schools, bag checks, and improved coordination with police who patrol in school areas.  Parents and students were asked to avoid gathering near schools and to report any suspicious behavior or object.  French schools hold three security drills a year, and students are taught how to hide or to escape.  This is very similar to the steps taken in the U.S. since the Columbine massacre.

In contrast, Nigeria’s president has ordered security forces to defend all schools in “liberated areas” of the country’s northeast to avoid further mass abductions from schools by Boko Haram extremists.  Yet Shettima Kullima, executive chairman of the Universal Basic Education Board in northern Nigeria’s Borno state, ruled out arming teachers even though it is common for soldiers to serve as teachers;  Kullima said students should instead be trained to be aware of security threats.  Since 2009, approximately 1,397 schools have been destroyed by Boko Haram extremists and 2,295 teachers killed.

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, adopted on December 15, 1791, states “[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that while the right to own firearms belongs to individuals, it is not an absolute right.  The incorporation of the Bill of Rights constrains the ability of local governments to the same extent as the federal government from infringing this right.  Any laws or regulations that seek to limit access to firearms, generally, must withstand legal scrutiny against the constitutional right.  Likewise, attempts to increase security at schools must not run afoul of federal or local limitations on firearms possession, ownership, or operation.

Attempting to counteract rising drug-related gun violence around the country, the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, encouraged each state receiving federal funds for education to introduce zero tolerance laws that mirrored existing federal regulations regarding prohibitions of firearms in school zones.  President Clinton signed the Act into law on March 31, 1994, which read in part:

Each State receiving Federal funds under any title of this Act shall have in effect a State law requiring local educational agencies to expel from school for a period of not less than 1 year a student who is determined to have brought a firearm to a school, or to have possessed a firearm at a school, under the jurisdiction of local educational agencies in that State, except that such State law shall allow the chief administering officer of a local educational agency to modify such expulsion requirement for a student on a case-by-case basis if such modification is in writing.

Regulations define a “firearm” as “any weapon which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive.” Under the same regulations, a “school” is defined as a place providing “elementary or secondary education, as determined under State law,” and a “school zone” is defined as “the grounds of a public, parochial or private school; or within a distance of 1,000 feet from the grounds of a public, parochial or private school.”

In addition to a broad prohibition of weapons on campuses or educational properties, North Carolina requires “all local boards of education [to] develop and implement written policies and procedures, as required by the federal Gun Free Schools Act, requiring suspension for 365 calendar days” for any student who found to have been in possession of a firearm or destructive device on educational property, or to a school-sponsored event off of educational property.  In NC, colleges and universities may form their own campus police. NC law also allows primary and secondary schools to hire security, typically local law enforcement or security services, which meets specific standards for training and licensing.  Additionally, school resource officers work at schools pursuant to memorandums of understanding between the local school district and law enforcement that specify duties and training requirements.

In the aftermath of the Parkland mass shooting, North Carolina House Speaker Moore named members to a state House Select Committee on school safety, which “will seek expert input on securing the state’s classrooms and education facilities.”  The committee will consult with local governments, school systems, and policy experts to address violence prevention, emergency management, and security in North Carolina schools.

Speaker Moore has suggested that a 2013 North Carolina law which allows sheriffs’ offices and police departments to set up volunteer school safety resource programs, utilizing people with experience in law enforcement or as military police, has been underused.  Under the law, volunteers work in schools under agreements between law enforcement agencies and local school boards.  Speaker Moore indicated that among options the committee will consider, arming school faculty is on the table.

NC Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mark Johnson, went on the record stating that he thought that teachers should not have firearms.  An informal survey conducted by Elon University indicated that only approximately 25% of North Carolina teachers wanted to carry a gun at school, and 40% indicated they would support some teachers and staff having access to firearms with special training.

There are no easy answers found in the data available about mass school shootings and the context of gun violence in American Schools. Part 2 of this series will take a look at the most common rhetoric surrounding mass school shootings and compared against known data.

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About Joonu Coste (4 Articles)
Joonu-Noel Coste is a third year student at Campbell Law and currently serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. Joonu has loved living in the Raleigh area for the last 6 years. Born and raised in New Hampshire, she graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Crop and Soil Science with a concentration in Biochemistry. After several years as a Project Officer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency she spent several years homeschooling three children, two of whom have disabilities. Her experience as a mother to children with disabilities inspired her to become a lawyer in order to advocate for underserved children, families, and individuals with disabilities. To that end she is also pursuing an LL.M in children's rights. After her 1L year she interned at Disability Rights North Carolina. During her 2L year she externed at the Wake County Superior Court Clerk’s Office of Special Proceedings and interned with the North Carolina Community College System’s General Counsel. After her 2L year, she was a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Intern for Legal Aid of North Carolina. She currently is an intern with the Wake County Public Defender's Office working exclusively with youth and is working as a legal assistant at Lesnik Family Law. She competes for Campbell’s National Moot Court Team and serves as President of the Education Law and Policy Society. Making sure that life is not all work, she enjoys spending time with family, baking, reading, and running 5k, 10k, and half-marathon races with friends.