Policy Market Blog

How Safe is the Classroom?

Martin Kennedy - Friday, January 25, 2019

In 1840, in the first recorded school shooting, a UVA student shot his law professor.  In 1927, Andrew Kehoe, a school board treasurer, blew up (with dynamite) part of the local school in Bath Township, Michigan.  He killed 38 children and six adults (58 were injured).  It remains the worst attack on a U.S. school.  The Columbine shootings -- April, 1999 -- killed 13 if you don’t include the shooters.      

However, when you walk from your car into a school, you’re moving from a relatively dangerous environment to relative safety.  Forty-three people were killed on (K-12) school campuses in 2017, 25 in 2016, and 33 in 2015.  That is out of roughly 55 million K-12 students, public and non-public, in each of those years.

So, the probability of being shot and killed while at school was less than the proverbial one-in-a-million in any given year.  David Ropeik, an instructor at Harvard with expertise in risk, calculated that the statistical likelihood of any given public-school student being shot and killed, at school, on any given day since 1999 (starting with Columbine and up through Parkland) was one in 614 million. 

The odds of being struck by lightening in any given year? About one in 700,000. 

… of being struck by lightening in your lifetime:  About one in 3,000.

What of the year just passed?  In 2018, there were 74 firearm incidents at both K-12 and college campuses resulting in injury or death.  This includes accidental discharges, suicides (five students and one SRO), as well as incidents at after-school sporting events and fights in the parking lot that escalated. 

More than half of the injuries and deaths came from three incidents --  Marshall County, KY, Parkland, FL, and Santa Fe, TX.  And, only two incidents – Parkland and Santa Fe – involved more than two fatalities.

Mass shootings are quite rare.  Students are more likely to die on their way to and from school or from an infectious disease they catch at school.     

How rare?  Since 1990, there have been 22 shootings in which two or more people were shot.  There are about 100,000 public schools and 33,000 non-public.  At the current rate (< 1 mass shooting per year), any given school can expect to be subject to a mass shooting about every 150,000 years.

Crude, back-of-the-envelope calculation?  Policymakers accept readily ‘plausible estimates’ in many areas that aren’t nearly as firm.  Yes, perhaps the rate of mass shootings is accelerating (it’s hard to tell since n is so low).  But, in an effort to gain perspective, let’s consider more data. 

About 350 children under the age of five drown each year in swimming pools, most in backyard pools.  For every death, another five go to the emergency room for nonfatal submersion injuries.  More than 50% of those require further treatment.  Some suffer permanent brain damage.  This is just among the (< 5 years-of-age) cohort.   

Yet, overall American children have never been safer.  Youth mortality (ages 5-14) has fallen dramatically, from 60 per 100,000 in 1950 to 13 per 100,000 today (CDC).   

School shootings are compelling not because, relatively speaking, they’re such a big threat, but rather because they are traumatic, receive massive media coverage (reinforcing the trauma), and because the victims are (mostly) in public institutions.  It might be irrational for a parent to worry overly about her kid’s school being targeted, but it’s understandable; it’s a horrifying thing to consider, something, unlike visiting a neighbor’s pool, where you don’t feel the same control.   

That school shootings are rare and kids are safer today than yester-year isn’t an argument to do nothing, though doing nothing is often a defensible alternative.  White papers aren’t about telling policymakers what they should do.  They, good ones, inform and provide context.  There are, from these data, some implications.  There’s also more relevant data.  That will be covered next week.

Preview?  There’s a common, though not universal, tendency in the wake of school shootings, in how elected officials respond.  How they begin to frame the event can impede sound policy.  Sometimes it’s an innocent reflex.       

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