No one doubts the convulsive horror of a school shooting. Massacres in American classrooms are uniquely terrifying, and parents, politicians, and educators are right to mobilize to stop them. At the same time, each mass shooting raises a question: How violent are our schools, really? The worst shootings make the headlines, but do they reflect a widespread problem?
There are sources that will answer with an emphatic yes. For example, Everytown for Gun Safety maintains an expansive interactive database that asserts that since 2013 there have been “344 incidents of gunfire on school grounds” in the U.S. — a number that includes accidental discharges, suicides, fights in parking lots, and every other incident involving the discharge of a gun. The “school shootings” that all parents fear represent a tiny fraction of those 344 incidents, which suggests that the chances of any given school facing a spree killer are almost vanishingly small.
But then along comes the Department of Education to amplify everyone’s fears. Last spring it declared that “nearly 240 schools . . . reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting.” This number blew through everyone’s estimates, including Everytown’s. Indeed, extrapolated over five years, it would triple Everytown’s.
Well, I have good news: The DOE’s estimate appears to be wildly exaggerated. NPR committed an act of journalism in the first degree and actually contacted each of the schools that reported a shooting to the DOE. It “found that more than two-thirds of these reported incidents never happened.”
So why were the numbers so wrong? Human error. It turns out that when you ask representatives of 96,000 different schools to fill out forms, some small percentage of them will make a mistake.
The genesis of the mistake lies in the department’s Civil Rights Data Collection effort, a massive survey that requires the nation’s schools to answer questions on a range of issues. For the most recent edition of the survey, the department added a seemingly simple question: “Has there been at least one incident at your school that involved a shooting (regardless of whether anyone was hurt)?” Nearly 240 schools — 0.2 percent of all schools surveyed — said yes.
The NPR report is almost comical:
Most of the school leaders NPR reached had little idea of how shootings got recorded for their schools.
For example, the CRDC reports 26 shootings within the Ventura Unified School District in Southern California.
“I think someone pushed the wrong button,” said Jeff Davis, an assistant superintendent there. The outgoing superintendent, Joe Richards, “has been here for almost 30 years and he doesn’t remember any shooting,” Davis added. “We are in this weird vortex of what’s on this screen and what reality is.”
There’s nothing weird about this, of course. Give enough people a form, and mistakes will happen. Those mistakes may also be worse the first year the question is asked. As NPR notes, “the law of really, really big numbers” is at work, and the response was well within the margin of error.
But this mistake highlights two things, one related to the challenge of school security, the other to the perception of public risk.
First, there is the needle-in-a-haystack challenge of law enforcement and school administrators, the burden of hardening every target and following every lead on the tiny, remote chance that one of the leads is real and one of the schools is actually a target. It’s the old adage applied to terrorism: School security has to be perfect every time, while the school shooter only has to get lucky once.
Second, our children are, thankfully, safer than we thought — safer, even, than the government told us. That is not a reason to ignore red flags or to blithely blow through warning signs in the assumption that everything will be alright. It is good reason for parents to send their kids to school without fear.
In other words, we should live our lives recognizing the proportionate risks. We can take precautions and live with confidence. So the next time you hear an alarming statistic, take it with a grain of salt. The government, it turns out, is not always right.
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