SWAT agents demonstrate an active shooter scenario during FBI Atlanta Range Day on March 22, 2019. (FBI photo)

GAO Study: Half of School Shootings Committed by Current or Former Students

The Government Accountability Office examined school shootings and found:

  • Half were committed by current or former students
  • Suburban and rural, wealthier, and low-minority schools had more school-targeted shootings; such shootings were the most fatal and most commonly committed by students
  • Urban, poor, and high-minority schools had more shootings overall and more motivated by disputes; these shootings were often committed by non-students or unknown shooters
  • More shootings happened outside, but those inside schools were usually more deadly

After disputes and grievances, accidental shootings were most common, followed closely by school-targeted shootings, such as those in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas.

The shooter in about half of school shootings was a student or former student; in the other half, the shooter had no relationship to the school, was a parent, teacher, or staff, or his or her relationship to the school was unknown, according to the data. When the shooting was accidental, a suicide, or school-targeted, the shooter was more often a student or former student. However, when the shooting was the result of a dispute or grievance, the shooter was someone other than a student in the majority of cases. For about one-fifth of cases, the shooter’s relationship to the school was not known.

The characteristics of schools where shootings occurred over the past 10 years also varied by poverty level and racial composition. Urban, poorer, and high minority schools had more shootings overall, with more characterized as a dispute or grievance. Suburban and rural, wealthier, and low minority schools had more suicides and school-targeted shootings, which had the highest fatalities per incident. Overall, more than half of the 166 fatalities were the result of school-targeted shootings.

The location of the shootings more often took place outside the school building than inside the school building, but shootings inside were more deadly, according to the data. Shootings resulting from disputes occurred more often outside school buildings, whereas accidents and school-targeted shootings occurred more often inside school buildings.

GAO found no empirical research in the last 10 years (2009-2019) that directly examined the link between school discipline and school shootings. According to literature GAO examined and five study authors GAO interviewed, various factors contribute to the lack of research examining this particular link, including that multiple and complex factors affect an individual’s propensity toward violence, making it difficult to isolate the effect of any one factor, including school discipline.

GAO was asked to examine school shootings, including the link between discipline and shootings. This report examines 1) the characteristics of school shootings and affected schools, and 2) what is known about the link between discipline and school shootings. To do so, GAO analyzed data on school shootings and school characteristics for school years 2009-10 through 2018-19; and conducted a literature review to identify empirical research from 2009 to 2019 that examined discipline approaches in school, and the effects of these approaches on outcomes of school gun violence, school violence, or school safety. GAO also interviewed selected researchers to gather perspectives about challenges and limitations in conducting research on school discipline and school shootings.

Read the GAO report

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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