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Mass killings on school grounds account for a very small percent of victims, but they capture far more public attention than other shootings.
Gun violence has killed nearly 1,200 children in the United States since the school massacre in Parkland, Florida, one year ago. Few of these deaths became the focus of the nation’s attention. Maybe that’s because these killings were so mundane, so normal, in the 21st-century United States.
A few weeks after the Parkland shooting, a 17-year-old high-school student in Birmingham, Alabama, named Courtlin Arrington, who’d long dreamed of becoming a nurse, was shot and killed in class, just months before she was to graduate. In July, three siblings—the oldest of whom was 6—were, according to news reports, murdered along with their mother by their father, who used the same gun to kill himself. A few months after that, a 17-year-old budding entrepreneur in Dayton, Ohio, named Lashonda Sharreice Childs was allegedly murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Just days before her death, according to local news media, Childs had written in a Facebook post that “domestic violence is real,” that it wasn’t “just in movies.” In December, Izabella “Izzy” Marie Helem was shot to death at the age of 4. Izzy’s 3-year-old brother had been playing with a gun he found in their grandmother’s Lebanon, Indiana, home and accidentally fired it in her direction.
While the rate of firearm-related homicides has declined since its peak in the 1980s, gun violence is the second most common cause of death among children in the U.S., according to one recent study, and its role in youth fatalities has expanded significantly in recent years. Seldom do such fatalities result from high-profile campus massacres like that in Parkland, Florida, last February, when a 19-year-old former student slaughtered 17 people, including 14 students.
Seldom do those fatalities happen on school campuses at all, in fact. While comprehensive data are limited, a 2017 study found that the majority—85 percent—of children 12 or younger who were shot to death from 2003 to 2013 were killed in a home. Roughly four in 10 kids aged 13 to 17 who were killed with a gun also died in a home; another four in 10 were killed in the streets. Meanwhile, nearly two in three of the country’s gun deaths (of all ages) are the result of suicide, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of federal data. The remaining third are homicides, the analysis notes, and public mass shootings make up less than 1 percent of firearm fatalities, according to separate reporting by The New York Times.
Research published late last February by James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor who has studied mass murders since the 1980s, underscores the rarity of Parkland-like incidents of gun violence. In his analysis, co-written by the doctoral student Emma Fridel, Fox rejects the characterization of mass school shootings as a national “epidemic.” Focusing on data spanning roughly the past two decades, the researchers found that of the 20 to 30 mass murders that occur on average each year, about one of them takes place at a school. (A mass shooting is defined as one with four or more fatalities.) The shooting incidents involving students, they show, have grown less frequent than they were in the 1990s, when the number of children killed in schools was four times what it is today.
Taken collectively, the data indicate that children who are the victims of gun violence are far more likely to experience it in incidents smaller in scope and greater in frequency than public mass shootings—incidents like those that took the lives of Courtlin and Lashonda and Izzy, from drive-by shootings to murder-suicides to preventable accidents. The cities where such violence is most common also tend to have high concentrations of low-income people of color. A review of a recent project profiling each child who was shot to death in the year since Parkland shows that most victims were youth of color, many of them in neighborhoods where community gun violence is common. African Americans comprise nearly two-thirds of gun-homicide victims among people ages 15 to 29, for example, which makes them 18 times more likely than their white peers to be murdered this way. But the more-mundane shootings, and the ones that mainly affect people of color, tend to get far less media attentionthan those that occur in suburban or relatively affluent and predominantly white communities.
Even incidents that do take place on campuses are rarely mass killings. Mass school shootings account for less than 1 percent of the gun-violence incidents on K–12 campuses, according to a recent report co-published by the country’s two largest teachers’ unions and Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for stricter gun control. From 2013 to 2018, slightly more than half of these school-based incidents were intentional, small-scale shootings. Typical scenarios involved arguments between two individuals that escalated, acts of domestic violence, parking-lot altercations, and robberies that somehow involved the campus.
Unintentional shootings—such as when a California high-school math teacher accidentally fired his gun in a safety demonstration during class last March, causing debris from the classroom ceiling to fall and strike a 17-year-old in the neck—made up about a fifth of these incidents. Another 12 percent were either uncategorized or the result of legal intervention; a police officer firing a gun at a potential shooter, for instance. The remaining 12 percent involved suicide deaths or attempts.
Mass school shootings like Parkland are clearly an anomaly within the landscape of gun violence in the U.S. But these sorts of incidents are at the center of a lot of high-profile activism. The Parkland students had unusual success in galvanizing a national conversation around gun control. Last February, still raw from the violence they witnessed, the students quickly swept much of the country into their movement, appearing in the press and at rallies and spearheading the massive gun-reform protest March for Our Lives just weeks after the shooting.
As I reported last year, these teens’ eloquence and political savvy, which themselves captured public attention, were at least partly a testament to the robust curriculum offered at their public school. Most of the activists are also white or relatively well-off, I wrote, which might have helped earn them the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity they received. But the Parkland teens ensured that their movement included students of color, and acknowledged the steady drip of community gun violence that so many of their less-privileged peers endure. Youth activists out of cities such as Chicago and Baltimore helped to organize March for Our Lives as well.
Nonetheless, the Parkland shooting unsurprisingly remained the focus of much of the March for Our Lives coverage. Ever since the Columbine massacre two decades ago, school shootings have remained at the forefront of the conversation about protecting kids from gun violence. The Columbine shooting led to safety reforms in districts across the country, as have many school shootings since. But these efforts can make schools into a stressful environment for students. Often, this punitive culture—namely, the presence of campus law enforcement—makes its way less into predominantly white, middle-class, or affluent communities, where high-profile shootings tend to happen, and more into places where the other less-recognized but more constant forms of gun violence are common.
In predominantly black or Latino schools, where metal detectors, police officers, and zero-tolerance discipline policies are the norm, students might be seen as delinquent by default. Research suggests that constant surveillance and presence of police, many of whom harbor racial biases, can actually exacerbate such violence. Some studies have found a correlation between punitive discipline and a greater prevalence of campus disorder and reduced academic performance.
“Black and brown people in this country are [often] criminalized by the violence of white students,” argues Jonathan Stith, the national coordinator for Alliance for Educational Justice, which advocates against punitive school policies. (Most mass shooters are white men.) This mirrors the imbalances in what kinds of gun violence the general public hears and talks about. An overemphasis on a small subset of the problem not only misrepresents where most of the danger lies, but can also inadvertently punish the wrong people. Stith told me about a meeting he attended in Chicago with some youth of color, including a young black woman who said something he's always remembered: “When I was [a teenager] and young people were killed in Chicago, nobody came for us. Nobody cared.’”
Alia Wong is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where this article was originally published.