There's been no real reduction in the number of U.S. school shootings despite increased security put in place after the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, which left 20 children and six educators dead.
An Associated Press analysis finds that there have been at least 11 school shootings this academic year alone, in addition to other cases of gun violence in school parking lots and elsewhere on campus when classes were not in session.
Last August, for example, a gun discharged in a 5-year-old's backpack while students were waiting for the opening bell in the cafeteria at Westside Elementary School in Memphis. No one was hurt.
Experts say the rate of school shootings is statistically unchanged since the mid- to late-1990s, yet the number of school shootings remains troubling.
Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, said there have been about 500 school-associated violent deaths in the past 20 years.
The numbers don't include a string of recent shootings at colleges and universities. Just last week, a man was shot and critically wounded at the Palm Bay Campus of Eastern Florida State College, according to police. Also this month, shootings occurred at South Carolina State University and Purdue University in Indiana — in both cases a student was killed.
Bill Bond, who was principal at Heath High School in West Paducah in 1997 when a 14-year-old freshman fired on a prayer group, killing three female students and wounding five, sees few differences in how shootings are carried out today. The one consistency, he said, is that the shooters are males confronting hopelessness.
"You see troubled young men who are desperate and they strike out and they don't see that they have any hope," Bond told The Associated Press.
Schools generally are much safer than they were five, 10 or 15 years ago, Stephens said. He noted that perspective is important: In Chicago there were 500 homicides in 2012, about the same number in the nation's 132,000-plus K-12 schools over two decades.
"I believe schools are much safer than they used to be, but clearly they still have a good ways to go," Stephens said.
The recent budget deal in Congress provides $140 million to support safe-school environments, and is a $29 million increase, according to the office of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
About 90 percent of districts have tightened security since the shootings at Sandy Hook, estimated Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Many schools now have elaborate school safety plans and more metal detectors, surveillance cameras and fences. They've taken other steps, too, such as requiring ID badges and dress codes. Similar to fire drills, some schools practice locking down classrooms, among their responses to potential violence.
Weingarten said more emphasis needs to be placed on improving school cultures by ensuring schools have resources for counselors, social workers and after-care programs. Many of these kinds of programs were scaled back during budget cuts of recent years.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Thursday that he also believes strong mental health support systems in schools are important. But he said schools are doing a "fantastic" job with school security and often schools are the safest place in a community.
School shootings may be a microcosm of a larger epidemic of gun violence in the United States, with gun violence claiming more than 30,000 lives annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For every person who dies from a gunshot wound, two others are injured.
Recent high profile cases that occurred outside of school grounds, in other public spaces, include last month's mall shooting in Columbia, Md., when, police say, 19-year-old Darion Aguilar shot and killed two employees before turning the shotgun on himself.
And in November, 23-year-old Paul Ciancia allegedly opened fire at the Los Angeles International Airport targeting TSA agents with a semiautomatic rifle, killing one officer. Ciancia has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges, including premeditated murder. In September, former U.S. Navy reservist Aaron Alexis killed 12 people in the Washington Navy Yard before being killed in a shootout, according to police.
Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University, says guns are just one part of the problem. In other countries with high rates of gun ownership, for example, homicide rates remain extremely low, he explained.
"Canada and Switzerland, for example, have high rates of gun ownership yet very low homicide rates," Levin told Al Jazeera. "We also lead the industrialized world in the number of non-gun-related homicide deaths, so guns alone don't explain the problem of violence in the U.S."
Levin attributes gun violence in the U.S. to several other factors.
"We have a culture of violence especially in rural southern states, where even a challenge to one's dignity or honor is enough to get you killed. It's not only acceptable but its socially approved to respond with a gun," he said. "This cultural factor goes back centuries to the days of the wild Wild West, so that violence is seen as American as apple pie and Jesse James."
Most violent gun crimes are committed by young men, according to Levin, who labeled violence a "masculine pursuit."
"Ninety-one percent of all murders in the U.S. are committed by men and 95 percent of all mass murders are men. Young people also fall in the violent-prone age group," he said, with a disproportionate number of murders committed by young men aged 18 to 24 years old.
Levin also blamed an "eclipse of community" and an overemphasis on personal freedom and individualism in the U.S. for the high rates of gun violence. "Personal freedom and individualism are profoundly important values in this country. More so than social responsibility."
According to Levin, instilling a sense of social responsibility is just as important and strikes a "healthy balance" between personal freedom and personal responsibility.
"Many individuals in the U.S. feel really alone in a psychological sense," Levin said, adding that estrangement from family and a lack of a strong support system can be a significant factor for why young men turn to violence. "When things don't go right in their lives, they have no one to turn to and may turn to violence instead."
Still, Levin noted a "dramatic reduction" in the homicide rate since the mid-1990s.
"Many cities that used to have an epidemic of murder by gunfire are now much safer. Gang warfare is at the basis for many of the shootings that we still see in some cities but overall we're doing better," he said. "In some cities murder rate is as low as it was in early 1960s which is amazing."
Amel Ahmed contributed to this report, with The Associated Press.