A recent report from the Department of Education (DoED) contains data on school shootings that is, at best, highly questionable, if not glaringly inaccurate. Confronted with the errors, the DoED cited false reporting by the schools themselves, saying that it is not the Department’s responsibility to verify those reports.
It would seem to most rational people that providing accurate data on such a serious matter as school shootings would be in the best interests of everyone. Falsely reporting such incidents, then, cannot be easily dismissed. Can these problems be attributed – as many of the schools in question claim – to administrative errors or is this a symptom of the anti-gun agenda that is so prevalent within the education system?
The report, released in 2018 and titled “School Climate and Safety,” is the product of a survey known as the 2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). It covers issues such as harassment, bullying, assaults, fighting, and robbery and the disciplinary action taken in response to those incidents, such as suspension or referral to law enforcement. The figures on school-related shootings are only one part of the publication.
The reporting errors were uncovered by a National Public Radio (NPR) investigation, carried out with the assistance of Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on children, youths, and families. As NPR’s Anya Kamenetz writes: “How many times per year does a gun go off in an American school? We should know. But we don’t.”
According to the CRDC document, the 2015-2016 school year saw a total of 2,200 physical attacks or fights in which a firearm or explosive device was involved. “Nearly 240 schools (0.2 percent of all schools) reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting,” the report says, “and over 100 schools (0.1 percent of all schools) reported a school-related homicide involving a student, faculty member, or staff member.”
NPR and Child Trends contacted every school that had reported a “school-related shooting,” although some of the schools did not respond to their inquiries. From the schools themselves or through media reports, NPR was able to confirm only 11 incidents. That is a far cry indeed from the number of “school shootings” the government claims occurred within this timeframe. It should be noted that “school shooting” does not necessarily mean anyone was injured or killed. The government’s definition includes any discharge of a firearm “at school-sponsored events or on school buses,” according to NPR. To further confuse matters, the Child Trends investigation found that 235, not “nearly 240,” schools had reported shooting incidents.
So, taking the Child Trends figure, what is the real story behind the 224 supposed school shootings that could not be confirmed? NPR reports that 161 schools or districts told them no school shootings had occurred. In Cleveland, Ohio, 37 schools or districts attributed their falsely claimed numbers to reporting errors, as did 26 school districts in Ventura County, California.
The CRDC is a mandatory, biennial survey but 2015-2016 was the first time schools had been required to report shootings. One argument for the huge discrepancies, then, is that administrators providing the data for the survey were unsure of the reporting guidelines or criteria – or had simply put certain numbers in the wrong boxes. Another possible explanation for some of the errors, according to Child Trends, is an incident in which a shooting – involving a student or faculty member – took place away from school but was still reported as “school-related.”
Of additional interest is the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s figure for school shootings over the same period of time. The FBI defines school shootings in the same way it defines other “active shooter” incidents: “One or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” The FBI does not include accidental discharges of firearms or drug- or gang-related violence. For the 2015-2016 school year, the FBI reports two school shootings.
Whether the glaring inaccuracies in reporting can be attributed to misunderstandings, simple reporting errors, or a desire on the part of some school administrators to over-inflate the figures for political purposes, the DoED numbers illustrate a vitally important issue – one that can be applied not only to gun violence but to almost any of the great cultural debates of our time: If we, as a nation, are to engage in honest and rational discussion, we must all agree to use as our starting point a set of accurate, verified facts and figures. If two opposing sides engage in any discussion that is grounded in two opposing realities, how can those two sides ever resolve their differences?