News reports after the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and similar school killings often tell inconsistent stories about the number of such cases because of incomplete data, adding to fear and confusion.
Nadine Connell, an associate professor of crime at the University of Texas at Dallas and the director of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies, recalls seeing stories published in the shadow of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newton, Connecticut, with headlines that listed "some sort of scary numbers, and as a school violence researcher, I was surprised because school shootings was something I pay attention to, and I swear I didn't miss some of those shootings.
"What I saw was a lot of confusion about what a school shooting incident was, what they were including in the narrative, and I began to become concerned about the potential impacts of that," Connell says.
Connell started looking closer at incidents classified as school-related and found some inconsistencies.
"Many of them were different kinds of violence that happened to take place on or near a school," Connell says. "Some of these adults had no interaction with the school, but some were spouses of teachers or were involved in carpool situations that got out of control, or they were 2 a.m. drug deals that happened to take place in the parking lot."
Connell and five students — two criminology students and three undergraduates — received a grant in January 2017 from the National Institute of Justice's Comprehensive School Safety Initiative to compile a database of school-related shootings in America starting in 1990. The project also involves researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York and Michigan State University.
The UT-Dallas database uses different tools to research and organize the data, such as open-source protocols from internet archives, special algorithms, independent verification and cross-referenced examinations. A school shooting in the database is classified as the discharging of a firearm that resulted in an injury or at least one fatality on a school campus for grades kindergarten through 12th or any related space where "the school has liability," such as stadiums, school buses or venues for school dances, Connell says.
So far, the group has identified more than 800 incidents since 1990. Participants expect to complete the database by the end of the year.
Connell says the database could have far-reaching effects that go beyond helping law enforcement entities identify patterns and helping schools construct safety strategies. It also shines a light on the impact that media have on school security and how they can stoke fears in unnecessary ways. Some states, for example, have had no school shootings based on the project's criteria.
"One of the takeaways that will come out of this is that school shootings are a more complex grouping of incidents than we currently talk about," Connell says. "One great example is if you look at what the Washington Post just published on the number of children affected by gun violence since 1999 because of the anniversary of Columbine. They have a headline that 200,000 children are affected by gun violence, and the interesting thing is if you read it, it changes the way they've talked about shootings, and I would say today's op-ed is a more responsible way to talk about school shootings.
"This is the kind of thing we hope to be able to continue and improve upon, but it all comes down to prevention and intervention strategies, and every one of those events will have a different way that we as a society can fix it."
Friday marked the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado. On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.
Credible and confirmed data can make for better choices when deciding how to prevent violence. Connell says safety policies like school shooting drills and providing teachers with weapons may have safety goals in mind but can create unnecessary fear.
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"School shootings are a very small piece of gun violence, and schools are the safest they've ever been for students, and we're continually doing things to make schools safer and safer," she says. "The one thing I hope comes out of this is that the narrative changes. Students should not be afraid of going to school because they're afraid of being shot. We are creating fear for no good reason."
School districts have implemented effective measures such as improving campus and classroom environments to focus on "emotional learning and helping students become more tolerant and inclusive," she says.
"There are lots of things available to schools to help create environments that help decrease victimization, and there's been a lot of focus on helping teachers and administrators to create an empathetic, tolerant and inclusive environment," Connell says. "Stopping them early on will help impact longer-term problems. Please don't take that to mean I'm saying kids not being nice will perpetuate school shootings, but day to day, being a kid is hard, and there are ways to make it a little bit easier for them in school.
"I understand 100 percent why schools are concerned because they have to deal with a lot of things at once and they are trying to do their best to respond, but they don't have a lot to work with, and hopefully, we can give them something that can ensure their responses are developmentally appropriate and realistic and in light