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Multiple-Victim School Shootings Are Rare. But They're Also More Frequent And More Deadly

Laura Isensee
Houston Public Media
A sign remembers those lost at Santa Fe High School at the nearby Santa Fe Junior High School outside Houston.

Sandy Hook. Parkland. Santa Fe.

If it seems like school shootings are becoming more common, there is some data to support that.

School homicides that involve multiple victims have become more frequent over the last decade, according to a new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ninety-two percent of these incidents involved a gun. Despite the uptick, they are still extremely rare events and account for less than 2 percent of all youth homicides in the U.S.

CDC researchers studied more than 400 school-associated homicides between July 1994 and June 2018. While the study shows more frequent school-associated homicides with multiple victims, researchers note that overall, the occurrence of a student being killed at school remains exceedingly low and has not changed significantly.

» RELATED | Go to more stories from the Guns & America project

The Numbers

Prior to June 2009, multiple-victim school homicides were actually on the decline.

The rate has increased since. The CDC attributes the rise partly to eight incidents between July 2016 and June 2018, according to Kristin M. Holland, the lead author of the study.

The year 2018, we know now, was the deadliest year on record for gun violence in schools, according to research from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

That includes shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and at Santa Fe High School outside Houston.

Firearm-related injuries were the cause of death in more than 70 percent of all the homicides included in the CDC study.

Schools Remain Safe

The recent spike in multiple-victim school homicides isn't the only major takeaway from the CDC study, though.

Overall, since 1994, the occurrence of school homicides has not changed significantly.

Between July 1994 and June 2017, the occurrence of a multiple-victim school homicide was just 0.008 per 100,000 students. In 2017 and 2018, that number was .0096 per 100,000 students.

Research by James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, argues that school shootings are not, in fact, more common than they used to be.

He said the shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe — in which 27 people were killed in total — affect the data.

"You can see in the CDC report the curve upward in the victimization rate, and a lot of that is tied, basically, to those two cases," Fox said. "Overall, the risk of being killed at school is extremely low, and schools are safe. They're safer than most places that our kids could spend time."

Still, many students are fearful. According to the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of teens surveyed are either somewhat or very worried that a shooting could happen at their school.

Data on school homicides is notoriously difficult to come by. Even the CDC study notes that some incidents could have been missed.

NPR found that more than two-thirds of the nearly 240 reports of a school-related shooting in the 2015-16 school year never happened.

The Takeaway

Overall, school homicides with multiple casualties have spiked recently, but context is needed.

"I still want to underline the fact that these incidents are very rare," said Holland, the CDC researcher. "However, any incident were a youth dies in a school setting is a major public health concern, especially because we consider schools to be safe places, and they should indeed be safe places for our students."

KERA is part of Guns & America, a national reporting collaborative of 10 public media newsrooms focusing attention on the role of guns in American life. You can find more Guns & America coverage here, and learn more about the collaboration here.

Anthony Cave reports gun culture as part of a new national reporting collaborative called Guns & America.