It’s easy to get spooked when you see news of school shootings on television and social media. It often seems like these incidents are on the rise. But how prevalent are they really?
And here’s the real question many parents want answered: How likely is a school shooting at my kids’ school?
It seems we should know this, but we actually have no idea. Instead of hard facts, we just have anecdotes and a deep feeling of dread.
Last spring, however, the Department of Education surveyed schools all across America. Their subsequent findings sent a chill down the spine of every parent of a school-aged kid. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights administers the Civil Rights Data Collection, or CRDC, every two years since 1968. By law, every school must complete the survey. According to the 2015-2016 school year results, “nearly 240 schools … reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting.” This is a level of violence higher than any previous speculation, higher than anyone else had ever found in the history of our schools.
In fact, these numbers were much higher than other organizations’ findings. One, called “Everytown for Gun Safety,” only claimed “344 incidents of gunfire on school grounds” have happened since 2003 in the U.S. This number includes every incidence of a gun discharge — suicides, parking lot fights, accidental discharges, you name it. Of those, only a few were school shootings. Yet the Department of Education reported a staggering 240 shootings in one year. What gives?
NPR decided to look at America’s new violence epidemic. Over the course of three months, they reached out to every school that had reported a shooting to ask them more specifically about the incident. To their surprise, more than two-thirds of administrators said the incidents never happened. “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,” NPR’s Anya Kamenetz reported. NPR was able to confirm just eleven shootings out of the 240 reported.
For example, the government reported 26 shootings in just one California school district. Upon further examination, not one of them seems to have occurred.
“I think someone pushed the wrong button,” said Jeff Davis, an assistant superintendent in the Ventura Unified School District in Southern California. The outgoing superintendent, Joe Richards, reported that he “has been here for almost 30 years and he doesn’t remember any shooting. We are in this weird vortex of what’s on this screen and what reality is.”
The Cleveland Metropolitan School District, according to the CRDC, had 37 shootings. But it turns out they had filled the form out incorrectly and put the number 37 on the wrong line.
In the Santa Monica-Malibu school district, 16 schools were supposed to have had shootings. However, officials there say they can’t remember any firearm incidents there in the past 20 years. Their best guess on what went wrong? Incidents involving scissors may have been conflated with guns.
In other words, the massively inflated numbers were due to human errors. People simply filled out poorly written government forms incorrectly. The CRDC had received complaints about this process before. Schools said that they’re asked to report information similar to “what states already collect, but in a different format, or at a level of specificity that they don’t currently track.” Also they said there was a “lack of clarity in the definitions of key terms.”
When asked about the discrepancy, the government said they would not immediately issue a correction. “The CRDC accepts correction requests for up to one year from the moment the submission period opens,” the Office for Civil Rights responded. “For the 2015-16 collection, the corrections period closed on June 30, 2018, and for this reason your data correction request cannot be accepted. However, a data note will be included on the data file to ensure users are aware of the errors you are reporting.”
That’s cold comfort for nervous parents sending their kids back to school this month.
The good news is that school shootings are really rare. The bad news is that our government can’t even assure parents of this salient fact. Instead, they put out alarming data on which policy-makers are basing new laws and practices, and on which parents are basing decisions for their children’s educations.
Perhaps the most important lesson any of us can learn from this is that the government is frequently wrong and can’t be trusted with matters that require common sense.
Mark Meckler is president of Citizens for Self-Governance.