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UT Dallas Team Building School Shootings Database To Inform Safer Policies And Design

Students from Washington D.C. area high schools sit with backs to White House during the national School Walkout on March 14, 2018.

This weekend, students will be marching in Dallas and across the country, calling for new laws to reduce gun violence.

Criminologist Nadine Connell is leading a research team that's trying to get a better grasp on how guns have affected K-12 schools. The University of Texas at Dallas researchers are creating a database of all school shootings in America since 1990.

Connell talked about some of the misconceptions behind school shootings.

“Rampage shootings are much less common than what we believe by looking at the media, by looking at these numbers,” she said. “And by that I mean, the number of people who come onto a school campus with the intention of harming as many people as they can is very, very rare.”

Connell says it’s so rare that she doesn’t think “it should be the thing that we make all of our policy about.” She says many of these shooting cases are "basically community violence that has worked its way into the schools.”

Knowing that, she says, helps schools take better precautions against gun violence, which is often perpetrated by adults rather than students.

Interview Highlights

On the reason for the database

We don’t have nearly enough information to make any good policy decisions. The police do not keep statistics about school shootings specifically. They keep statistics about an incident in a shooting and under certain circumstances, there are more details that would be available to the public. It then wraps up things like a shooting that happens at a university and a shooting that happens at a high school or a middle school — those aren’t the same things. Everybody at a university campus is over 18. University campuses are open spaces that anybody can walk into. If anybody can walk into your high school, you have a serious security problem. So these are apples and oranges and we cannot fix them with the same solution. Communities and schools need proper information to determine what their risk factors are and how they can best approach them.

Why the database only goes back to 1990

We have to deal with data collection limitations. Anything on the internet before 1990 didn’t really exist, which means that our knowledge about these less-rampage-like shootings is going to be very limited prior to 1990.

What the team’s hoping to learn

There are ways to manipulate safety through using space; it’s called “situational crime prevention” or “crime prevention through environmental design.” We use it in cities all of the time. It’s why Klyde Warren Park exists and we have lights at night and beautiful open space, so that nobody can hide in a bush and hurt you. Communities think like this for so many of their public spaces, but oftentimes, when it comes to schools, we think about educational use and not safety use. Those do not need to be mutually exclusive, and we can create environments that are welcoming and that are friendly for education but also help keep students safe and take into account potential threats — and by potential threat, that can mean so many things, not just a school shooting.

Interview responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.