Federal Survey Wildly Overestimates Number of School Shootings

The federal government has no idea how many school shootings occur each year.

The Department of Education (DOE) says that there were 235 school shootings in the 2015–16 school year. But when NPR double-checked the figure, it found that only 11 could be independently confirmed. A full 161 of the reported shootings—some two-thirds of the alleged total—did not happen at all. Another four incidents were miscategorized. (In one case, for example, a cap gun was fired on a school bus. In another, a student posted a picture online of himself holding a gun, at home, on a Saturday.) And 59 could neither be confirmed or disconfirmed, since the districts never responded to NPR’s inquiries.

The DOE’s figures appeared in 2018’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) survey, a biennial report that asks districts about everything from school disciplinary rates to the availability of advanced placement courses. This was the first time the survey asked schools if they’d had any shootings.

At the very least, this shows that a lot of time and effort was spent collecting useless data. At worst, this raises the possibility that these bad stats will be used to direct millions in federal school safety grants toward unproductive or even counterproductive uses.

Ventura Unified School District in Southern California reported 27 school shootings to the DOE but told NPR that the correct number was zero. An assistant superintendent speculated that someone had hit the wrong button by mistake.

Cleveland’s school district reported 37 shooting incidents to the DOE, then told NPR that this was actually the number of times people had been caught on school grounds with a firearm or a knife. Someone had accidentally entered the number on the wrong line.

The DOE tells NPR that all this data will have to stay in the system, as the department’s deadline for corrections has closed. But the department will amend its latest survey with a note about the problems NPR uncovered.

I hope they notice that note at the National Institute for Justice’s Comprehensive School Safety Initiative (CSSI), which is designing pilot programs to cut down on school violence. CSSI is relying on that CRDC data to evaluate the trends in school shootings. Obviously, any analysis based on these numbers is going to be flawed. (In March Congress appropriated $75 million for the CSSI’s efforts.)

Past programs crafted off CRDC data have proven disappointing, even when the data may have been more sound. An Obama-era effort to combat racial bias by intervening in districts that were discipling black students at higher rates, for example, prompted some schools to game the numbers. School safety is an innately local problem, and the best ways to address it will be crafted by people with local knowledge, not by federal bureaucrats tasked with interpreting numbers from faraway districts. Especially when there’s a good chance those numbers aren’t remotely accurate in the first place.

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