National News

Why Shootings Are So Shocking: School Is the ‘Safest Place’ for Children

Posted May 22, 2018 7:53 p.m. EDT

In the days after a school shooting, like the one Friday in Santa Fe, Texas, parents hug their children tighter in the morning and students consider hiding places in their classrooms, wondering if such tragedies are inevitable.

Amid the trauma, heartbreak and anxiety is a key piece of data, one that makes campus shootings all the more shocking when they do happen: School is one of the safest places for an American child.

While homicide is among the leading causes of death for young people, school is a relative haven compared with the home or the neighborhood. According to the most recent federal data, between 1992 and 2015, less than 3 percent of homicides of children ages 5 to 18 occurred at school, and less than 1 percent of suicides.

“Especially in the younger grades, school is the safest place they can be,” said Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. No wonder, then, that news of a mass killing in a school building incites panic, grief and calls for policy changes far beyond the town or city that is affected.

Unintentional injury is the leading cause of death for American school-age children, with traffic accidents, poisoning and drowning among the most common causes. Those deaths almost always occur away from school.

American students were about as likely to die on school grounds in a transportation-related accident as they were in a homicide of any kind, according to federal data. In some parts of the country, accidents related to high winds, like tornadoes, presented a more deadly threat to children than an active shooter, according to a 2014 report from Safe Havens International, a nonprofit group that works on school security.

Suicides and simple homicides, with targeted victims, were responsible for more deaths than active-shooter incidents, which were defined as events in which a person killed or attempted to kill multiple people in a confined area without a pattern to the victims selected.

The Safe Havens report looked at federal data along with data from other sources, like news coverage and a New York City Police Department report on active-shooter incidents across the country.

Of course, risks of violence at school are not negligible. Six percent of high school students reported that they had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property during the 2014-15 school year. And the scale of the threat varies by race, ethnicity and gender. About 3 percent of black non-Hispanic students reported that they were victims of nonlethal violence at school, compared with 1.7 percent of Hispanic students and 1.4 percent of white non-Hispanic students. Boys were more than twice as likely as girls to be victimized.

Some experts worry that schools are focusing too much on a single rare threat — an active shooter — and too little on adopting safety measures that could help prevent a wide range of threats.

Two-thirds of school districts conduct exercises to prepare for an active shooter, according to a 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office. In 2015-16, 92 percent of schools had a plan in place to respond to a shooting, up from 79 percent in 2003-04, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Chris Dorn, a senior analyst at Safe Havens International, said that after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, his organization saw an uptick in demand for its services, completing 1,000 school security assessments in one year. Interest is even greater now. By this fall, Safe Havens expects to have done 1,000 assessments just since the Parkland, Florida, shooting in February.

The group tells schools that the biggest safety risks have not changed, and are less likely to be mass shootings than “petty theft, assault, child abduction due to custody issues or sexual predators,” Dorn said.

Measures to cut down those risks, such as reducing the number of open entrances to a school building, asking teachers to work with their classroom doors locked and instituting sign-in procedures for guests, will also be helpful in the rare case of a mass shooting.

Lockdown and evacuation drills should not be used to “test” or scare staff members and children, Dorn added; instead, they should be thought of as part of basic emergency planning for many kinds of events, like severe weather or a weapons search, as well as potential gun violence.

Many experts said that mental health support for students, including anti-bullying efforts and peer mediation, were among the most powerful tools, not just to identify potential school shooters in the student body, but also to help prevent the myriad school discipline and violence problems that happen every day.

“What I would say is not necessarily effective is schools spending a lot of time and effort specifically on active shooters,” Dorn said. Still, he acknowledged, “we’re at a slightly accelerated risk now because of copycats.”