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Guns in schools: Most student shootings take place outside the classroom

Fewer than 2 percent of student homicides happen at school, and students face far greater risk at home and outdoors

On Jan. 16, only about 20 minutes apart, shootings marred what would have been otherwise normal Friday evening basketball games at high schools in Mobile, Alabama, and Ocala, Florida. A student was shot and injured in each case; both survived. They were the 49th and 50th shootings at K–12 schools in the U.S. — calculated by Al Jazeera as incidents in which a gun discharges on school property and a student or teacher is involved but not police — since the December 2012 massacre of 26 children and staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. This is the seventh in a seven-part series examining the issues surrounding school shootings in the U.S. The first six parts took stock of where the gun control debate standshow defense measures could traumatize kidshow threat assessments are being used to prevent school violencewhy Georgia has seen the most school shootings since Sandy Hookwhy Massachusetts has the fewest guns deaths per capita, and Newtown's grass-roots gun reform efforts.

Millions of dollars spent over the two years since Sandy Hook to safeguard schools from deadly shooters didn’t protect 7-year-old Kayla Walker, who was shot by her father with a .45-caliber gun on Jan. 24 in Queens, N.Y. Like so many youth homicides, Kayla was gunned down at home — not school — along with her mother, grandmother and 12-year-old sister, the only survivor.

School safety and security has been a top concern for President Barack Obama and other parents around the country in the two years since 20-year-old Adam Lanza slaughtered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.

However, fewer than 2 percent of student homicides — whether by gun or any other means — take place at school, on the way to or from school or at a school-sponsored event, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. From July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, 11 of the 1,336 homicides (0.8 percent) of school-age children happened at school. While that number fluctuates each year, it has remained below 2 percent since the Indicators of School Crime and Safety annual reports started in 1992.

The CDC estimates the odds of a student age 5 to 18 being a victim of a school-associated homicide at about 1 in 2.5 million.

Nonfatal gun violence occurs in schools only sporadically. According to a 2013 report from the Bureau of Justice and Statistics, most nonfatal gun violence (across all age groups) occurs at the victim’s home (42 percent) or in an open area, on the street or on public transportation (23 percent). Less than 1 percent takes place in schools.

In other words, despite the significant hours children log at school and despite a rise in active shooter situations in and outside schools, children are more likely to be shot at a friend or relative’s house or in a parking lot or garage or shopping mall than at their school.

“Schools are safe,” said Larry Johnson, the president and director of public safety of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officials, which oversees school security programs. “I think people are forgetting the fact that schools are sometimes safer than the homes.”

He said a series of high-profile shootings led to schools funneling resources into school security systems in the mid-2000s.

“Law enforcement was responding hard to active-shooter situations,” Johnson said. “I’m not so sure that’s what our kids really needed. Inside schools, we needed to not focus on the hardware of safety and security but more emphasis on really developing social and emotional programs.”

It’s the emotional well-being of kids that Johnson would like to see resources better address.

“Our kids are distressed. In some cases, they’re troubled, from various issues that may be going on in home life or community,” he said. “Finally, finally districts are beginning to look at the mental health aspects of safety and security.” 

‘Our training more than doubled after Sandy Hook, and it has continued at a very high level since then.’

Mo Canady

National Association of School Resource Officers

One way of doing this, he said, is training and hiring more counselors who can deal with issues of trauma — which are far more common than active shooters.

Several national organizations, including the American Counseling Association, recommend at least one school counselor for every 250 students. But the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Education show that in 2009, elementary and secondary schools provided an average of one counselor for every 471 students

But according to research firm IHS, spending on electronic school security systems remains strong. In 2014 it estimated the total market size for electronic security equipment in schools to exceed $1 billion. It expects video surveillance, access control and mass notification systems to continue gaining popularity through the end of this year before slowing in 2016 and 2017.

IHS analyst Blake Kozak said mass notification in schools heightened after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. Similarly, after Sandy Hook, interest in electronic access control spiked.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s really an after-the-fact thing. People are reacting to shocking events,” he said.  “But it’s not going to be a sustainable growth. It’s probably going to drop back down over time.” However, if another high-profile school shooting happens in 2015 or 2016, he expects growth to pick back up.

In addition to electronic security systems, there has also been an increase in the number of law enforcement officers hired by schools.

In 2013 the police department for Bridgeport, about 20 miles south of Newtown, received a $2.25 million federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant to hire 10 additional police officers for city schools.

Mo Canady is the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which has trained school safety officers for 25 years. He said Sandy Hook was a new turning point in the school safety industry.

“Because Columbine happened in a high school and Sandy Hook was an elementary school — we’re talking about 6-year-old students — I think that was even more traumatic to the psyche,” he said. “Our training more than doubled after Sandy Hook, and it has continued at a very high level since then.”

School resource officers, Canady said, offer much more than law enforcement. They teach safety education in classrooms — whether stranger danger to young kids or distracted driving to high school teens — and also serve as informal counselors, role models and mentors.

“It’s so much more than just trying to prepare for an active shooter event that, for most of the folks we train, they will never experience,” he said.

“But if they do face it,” he added, “they better be prepared, and they better have a plan.”

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