2018-2019 Violence in Schools Report - Coming soon

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Overview and Summary

More than a year after the horrific shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a national conversation continues around violence in schools. Commonly held beliefs, parent and student fears, and the prevailing media narrative all say that the most likely threat a school faces is that of an active shooter. Although such events are horrific, data indicates these tragedies are exceedingly rare. 

As noted in the key findings of this report, the greatest threat to the safety of schools is not an active shooter event. In fact, there are critical unintended consequences associated with undertaking any and all interventions in the name of active shooter response. Perhaps more troubling, this perception of the single, overwhelming threat of an active shooter has become a wide-spread belief that has negatively impacted all-hazards preparedness and potentially decreased the overall safety of schools.

Now more than ever, there is a critical need to move beyond speculation and anecdotes about school safety to a data-based analysis of the threats and incidents of violence that have occurred in K-12 United States schools during the 2018-2019 school year. The Educator’s School Safety Network (ESSN), a national non-profit school safety organization, has compiled the most current information on threats and incidents of violence in America’s schools to examine the frequency, scope, and severity of the problem.

Key Findings

  1. In the 2018-2019 school year, only 6% of all tracked incidents involved a school shooting.

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Despite high levels of media attention, and the common perception that school shootings are the most significant risk schools face, only 6% of all tracked violent incidents involved an active shooter event in a school. An additional 4.5% of tracked incidents involved shots being fired on school grounds. Even with the inclusion of the tracked incidents where a gun was found in a school but not fired (13.6% of incidents), the total of all violent incidents that were related to the presence or use of guns in a school was less than a quarter (24%) of all the events that occurred.

For the purpose of this report, an incident was categorized as a “shooting” when shots were deliberately fired on the campus of a school with the intent to cause harm. An event was categorized as “shots fired” when a weapon was discharged on school grounds in an incident that was not considered targeted violence.

This finding warrants an examination of the amount of time and resources currently spent preparing solely to respond to an event that is potentially devastating, but statistically rare. The need for active shooter preparation and training is critical, however, it is not the only (or most likely) hazard schools face. Harvard lecturer David Ropeik reasons that despite our common perception of the risk, “the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000”.  It is likely that the increased awareness and fear of active shooter attacks has resulted in the belief that the actual number of these events has also increased. Although many of the effects of this over-emphasis on a statistically unlikely event at the exclusion of more likely crises are not measured in this study, the most commonly tracked incident, a response occasioned by a false report or mock attack, is directly related and discussed in finding #2 below.

2.  Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, schools faced a wide array of different types of violent incidents.

The most common incidents tracked in the 2018-2019 school year were false reports or mock attacks, which accounted for 18% of all incidents. This is a sharp increase from the rate tracked in previous school years, and indicates that the fear of a school shooting can be effectively weaponized by perpetrators to cause chaos, fear, and disruption, as well as provoke a tactical law enforcement response. As discussed in finding #1 above, the belief that school shootings happen frequently, or the fear that they are imminent or inevitable, may also result in erroneous reports of lower level incidents as active shooter events.

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The high rate of simulated or falsely reported attacks, combined with the significant number of reports of suspicious people in or near a school (15.8%), accounted for 34% of all incidents. More than a third of tracked incidents that disrupted schools and required multi-agency responses were predicated on the high level of concern and anxiety that school stakeholders have about an active shooter event. 

While this focus on gun violence is not without validity (as 24% of violent incidents were gun-related), violent incidents in schools encompassed a wide array of events, including 18% of incidents where violent, aggressive behaviors were present in schools without the presence of a gun. These included outside aggressive actors such as disruptive parents or trespassers, large-scale student fights, and other less frequent but equally concerning events such as attempted abductions, dating violence, and assaults. This raises questions about the lack of training, preparedness, and resource allocation in schools for non-gun related violent events that are more statistically likely to pose a threat to the safety of students.

3.  Bomb threats and bomb incidents continued to disrupt schools in the 2018-2019 school year.

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The original intent of this research and series of reports was to measure the frequency of bomb incidents and threats. Although the scope of each subsequent report has expanded to include other types of violence, school-based bombing incidents, suspicious packages, and bomb threats remain concerns that are inadequately addressed in current policies, training, and resources. Bomb threats accounted for 32% of all specified threats, while bomb incidents (detonations, devices, and suspicious packages) accounted for 9% of all tracked violent incidents. This frequency (and the lack of preparedness that makes it particularly concerning) has remained largely unchanged since this research begin in 2014.

As discussed in previous reports, school administrators and law enforcement officials continue to find themselves in the untenable position of having to make critical decisions about the validity of threats with little to no threat assessment protocols, few established best practices, outdated procedures, and typically, a complete lack of education-based school safety training. More alarmingly, while the 88 gun related incidents noted in 2018-2019 is clearly unacceptable, current training and planning practices that focus solely on active shooter response result in a school being inadequately prepared to prevent and respond to the majority of violent incidents (78%) that do not involve gun violence. This single emphasis also compromises educators’ abilities to plan for, prevent, and respond to crisis events that are not man-made, but much more likely, such as accidents, medical emergencies, and severe weather events. This reinforces the critical need for a comprehensive, all-hazards approach to threats and incidents that incorporates both violence prevention and response.

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