What Counts as a School Shooting? Lawmakers Want An Official Definition

Gun Rights

The federal government should create an official definition of a school shooting and collect more data on the incidents to help guide future prevention efforts, a group of Democratic lawmakers said this week.

A bill they reintroduced April 25, called the School Shooting Safety and Preparedness Act, would seek to address the dearth of official data about gun violence in schools.

The legislation’s sponsors are Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., and Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga. The bill, supported by gun-violence prevention groups and the National Education Association, was first introduced in 2020.

“There is not currently a federal definition for a ‘school shooting,’ yet far too many of our young people have witnessed one firsthand,” McBath said in a statement. “We must find solutions to stop these horrifying tragedies.”

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The bill’s filing comes about a month after an adult former student of The Covenant School, a private Nashville elementary school, shot and killed three students and three adults there. The event sparked a fresh wave of conversations about school safety and gun laws.

Defining a school shooting

There is no single official definition of a school shooting.

Federal agencies, media outlets, and advocacy organizations that track gun violence on school campuses all use varying criteria. Some only include incidents during official school hours, while others count shootings at any time or those that occur during extracurricular activities.

Data collections also vary in whether they include suicides, non-injury incidents, and incidents on school grounds that don’t involve students or staff.

The School Shooting Safety and Preparedness Act would define a school shooting as an incident where one or more people are killed or injured by a firearm that occurs:

  • in, or on the grounds of, a school, even if before or after school hours;
  • while the victim was traveling to or from a regular session at school; or
  • while the victim was attending or traveling to or from an official school-sponsored event.

The bill would require the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics to annually collect and report data on such incidents, breaking out the number of mass shootings, accidents, and suicides.

It would also require contextual data about the size of the school, when the incidents occurred, characteristics of the shooter and their relationship to the school, how the shooting was stopped, the firearm the assailant used, and how that firearm was obtained.

To guide research on safety and prevention, the bill would require the agency to report on factors like whether or not there were armed teachers in the building, active shooter plans, technology used to restrict access at school entrances, and law enforcement response times.

Difficulty with federal data collection

Existing sources of federal data on school shootings do not meet the bill’s definition and have some limitations.

The NCES tracks violent deaths, including suicides and homicides in schools, but that data isn’t limited to gun incidents.

A separate chart of school shootings included in the NCES data relies on information from the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, which discontinued its support for a school shooting database in June 2022. That database, now privately maintained, uses a broad definition, counting every instance when a gun was brandished on school property.

It can be difficult to consistently collect and track official data at the school level. In 2015-16, the Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which includes information from nearly every public school in the country, began asking schools about incidents “involving a shooting” whether or not anyone was hurt.

That year, NPR reporters called all of the 240 schools mentioned in the official data report, and they could only confirm 11 incidents. Some administrators reported that they had hit the wrong button in filling out the federal survey, others weren’t sure what incidents should be included, and interpretations of the question varied.

Opposition to new data collection

Gun rights advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association have long resisted new federal research on gun violence, suggesting it could be misleading or used to encourage new firearms restrictions. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment on the School Shooting Safety and Preparedness Act.

When the U.S. House of Representatives education committee previously took up the bill, Republicans on the committee objected to its passage. The committee, now controlled by the Republican majority, is unlikely to recommend the bill for passage in the full House this year.

“Every student should be safe at school. Period. But this legislation isn’t about that—it’s about giving the left a messaging bill to score political points,” committee chairperson Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., told Education Week in an email.

“Much of the data required under this legislation is already being collected. Further, there are other challenges to school safety besides school shootings, but they are ignored by Democrats who are fixated solely on firearms,” Foxx continued. “This bill does not empower parents, school leaders, or teachers to address the problems students are facing.”

But the bill’s sponsors insist more official information is needed.

“The more we know about the dangers that guns pose to our classrooms, the more likely we are to prevent the next Marjorie Stoneman Douglas or Sandy Hook massacre,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement, referring to two of the deadliest K-12 shootings in U.S. history.

How Education Week counts school shootings

To inform discussions about school safety and related policies, Education Week began tracking school shootings in 2018.

Reporters and EdWeek librarians comb through news alerts and local media reports daily to determine what incidents meet the publication’s criteria. The database includes incidents:

  • where a firearm was discharged,
  • where any individual, other than the suspect or perpetrator, has a bullet wound resulting from the incident,
  • that happen on K-12 school property or on a school bus, and
  • that occur while school is in session or during a school-sponsored event.

Under that definition, there have 16 school shootings resulting in injuries or deaths so far in 2023.
Most recently, a teacher was injured Friday when a gun inside a student’s backpack accidentally discharged in a classroom at West High School in Knoxville, Tenn., according to police.

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