While the most notorious school shootings make headlines, the majority of gun violence at school happens in low-income areas, outside of school buildings, after school hours, and with low casualties. This type of gun violence is often ignored, but it is just as important to address it.
Can you recall any school shootings that were nonfatal? In 2001, an 18-year-old former student opened fire at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, California, shooting six students who all survived their injuries. While the average American has no idea this even occurred, the terror and eventual trauma felt by these six victims and the other students present is just as valid as the terror at Columbine, Parkland, and recently, The Covenant School. While no one can deny the power of loss, perhaps we are doing ourselves a disservice by counting bodies instead of bullets.
The stark reality is, these “unconventional” or (forgive me) “uninteresting” zero-fatality shootings are everything but. Our idea of gun violence has been skewed by the archetypal idea of the “school shooter” - a “lone-wolf” perpetrator that enters a school building and shoots indiscriminately or targets their peers with an assault rifle. This idea of the school shooter is perpetuated by film, memes, and other media, and mostly by the compelling characteristics of these people - their extreme ideologies, their rigid appearance, self-professed anti-hero persona, etcetera. In the scope of gun violence at school, the most notorious of perpetrators are outliers. Most of the gun violence that takes place at our schools is happening outside in parking lots, after school hours, and with low casualties. The error is that we’ve effectively removed these instances from the conversation surrounding school shootings and are ignoring this majority subset of gun violence at school because the root causes are uncomfortable and unfeasible.
In the mid-20th century, the culture surrounding guns wasn’t yet marred by countless instances of gun violence in schools. However, after the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, every instance of a gun going off at school is a result of aberrant behavior, negligence, or retaliation and needs to be investigated with the same vigor as any other shooting. When we apply this discipline of accounting for every shot fired on school grounds, a different perspective on gun violence at school emerges. Out of 480 incidents of gunshots on school property from 2022-2023, 75% (n=361) incidents took place outside of a school building. 37% of those outside incidents took place in the school parking lot, and 27% of those outside incidents took place in front of the school (a quick Google News search indicates that many of these “front-of-the-school” shootings may be attributed to “drive-by”-style shootings).
Of all 480 incidents from 2022-2023, only 15% (n=55) occurred inside a school building, a statistic comparable with the number of shootings that happened on a school bus that year (11%, n=41). While we don’t want to minimize the 55 instances of gun violence inside a school building, we absolutely need to start recognizing the +60% differential between shootings that happen outside on school grounds versus the shootings that happen inside, along with any other elements that are not receiving attention.
The US Government Accountability Office released a 2020 report to examine the characteristics of school shootings in an effort to discover a link between these characteristics and discipline administered by schools. The report reveals a litany of factors that intersect, one of which shows the relationship between poverty and school shootings. The number of school shootings increased with the level of poverty in the school. Schools with 50% or more of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch had nearly two-thirds of all shootings, while schools with 25% or fewer students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch had just over one-tenth of all shootings. Additionally, certain types of shootings were more common in poorer schools, such as shootings related to disputes or grievances and shootings in which the target or intent was unknown.
Inversely, this study found that certain kinds of shootings were more prevalent in wealthier schools, like school-targeted shootings and suicides. These were the most fatal shootings and most commonly committed by students. Now our perception of the reality of gun violence on school grounds becomes clearer - most shootings taking place on campus occur in low-income communities, outside of the school building, with most of the violence stemming from an escalating dispute. However, these targeted attacks that happen in wealthier schools dominate the public consciousness because of their higher rate of fatalities and because of their juxtaposition to seemingly safer communities. But despite the higher rate of fatalities in these targeted, wealthier community school shootings, there are more people being victimized by school shootings in low-income communities. For every school shooting death, 6 more are injured. These survivors, the people that are injured or witness the shooting, are likely to develop trauma-induced mental health issues, will be less likely to graduate high school, go to college, and graduate college, will be less likely to be employed and have lower earnings in their mid-20s. It’s become evident that every bullet fired on campus has lasting consequences, and ignoring the communities and school shooting factors represented in these situations is simply ignoring the reality of school shootings as a whole.
History is marred with examples of leaders neglecting to evaluate the totality of a situation, leading to disaster. One such example, Cyclone Nargis, a category 4 storm, made landfall in Burma on May 2, 2008. The storm caused widespread devastation, killing more than 100,000 people and displacing millions more. The storm was considered a "once-in-a-500-year" event, but officials in the region were criticized for not doing enough to warn the public about the impending danger. While a region-wide evacuation would have been nearly impossible, officials had satellite imagery and the resources to foresee the magnitude of the impending storm, and a considerable number of lives would have been spared if the relevant government bodies had warning systems and emergency communication in place.
Perhaps this comparison is lacking, because there will be no single cataclysmic event to make us aware of the lives that are destroyed in these “un-spectacular” school shootings. 100,000 lives lost in a single event is an unprecedented tragedy, but 1 life lost in a low-income schoolyard dispute every day for a decade is business as usual, and the victims left in the wake will continue to go unmentioned in the conversation. Ignoring instances of gun violence in low-income areas, where many of the victims are Black and Latinx youth, will continue to hinder the progress made in racial and economic equality, and if school security tech leaders are serious about improving safety and security standards countrywide, we need first to address the communities that are most in need. Low-income areas are already lacking mental health resources, adequate facilities and the behavioral technicians necessary to manage their student body.
School shootings are a serious problem that affects students and communities of all income levels. While the most notorious school shootings are often the ones that make the headlines, the majority of gun violence at school takes place in low-income areas, outside of school buildings, after school hours, and with low casualties. This type of gun violence is often ignored because it is not as dramatic or newsworthy as the more fatal shootings. However, if security tech leaders are interested in enacting effective change through safety and security that is comprehensive, then we truly have to create solutions that account for every community, location and bullet fired.