What can data tell us about the prevalence of school shooting incidents in the United States, and can we use that information to predict the likelihood of a school shooting taking place at your child's school next year?
In order to attempt an answer to that question, let's focus on 2012 first. This year, there have been four shootings at K-12 schools (note: I had to ignore two shootings on US college campuses to come up with this number). Here are the incidents:
1. February 10, 2012: A student shot and killed himself in front of 70 classmates at a public high school in Walpole, New Hampshire.
2. February 12, 2012: A former student killed three students and injured six in a shooting at a public high school in Chadron, Ohio.
3. March 6, 2012: A disgruntled former teacher shot and killed the headmistress of a private religious high school in Jacksonville, Florida.
4. December 14, 2012: 27 people, including the shooter, were killed in a Newtown, Connecticut public elementary school. The shooter also killed one other person at his home prior to going to the school.
But really, how common are school shootings in the United States? Four seems like an excessive number. After culling through the incidents from the last thirteen years, here are the number of US school shootings per year (data from infoplease.com):
It appears that 2012 is on the high end, although it is not completely atypical. Taking a strict average over the last thirteen years, the US experiences 2.46 school shootings per year.
It is also interesting to note that these shootings have taken place all over the country and in all regions. There does not seem to be a difference between socioeconomic status or rural/urban setting. However, most school shootings take place at high schools. Of the 32 US school shootings from 2000 through 2012, 23 of them took place in a high school. Only three took place in an elementary school. Five took place in a middle school. One took place in a one-room Amish K-12 schoolhouse.
Now that we have an understanding of the number of school shootings in a given year, we need to know how many schools there are. The best estimate from the Center for Education Reform is that there are about 132,656 K-12 schools, both public and private, in the United States. There are about 99,000 public schools, but I am including private schools in my calculation because a number of the school shootings over the last 13 years took place at private religious schools.
So, what are the odds that a school shooting will occur in your child's school in 2013? If you take the average number of school shootings per year and compare it to the number of schools in the US, you get 2.46:132,656. Reducing that down reveals the following statistic:
The chances of any particular K-12 school in the United States experiencing a shooting incident in any given year is approximately 1 in 53,925.
Breaking the numbers down a little further reveals the following statistics:
The chances of a school shooting taking place in a US high school in any given year: 1 in 21,000.
The chances of a school shooting taking place in a US elementary or middle school in any given year: 1 in 141,463. (data for the number of elementary and middle schools is not separated by agencies keeping track of such numbers)
Please note, this is not a scientific study. I relied on publicly available numbers and a probability statistic calculation that is simple enough to be taught to middle school students. It is obviously much more complicated than I have presented it to be--there are a number of factors that would need to be examined prior to claiming that 1 in 53,925 is wholly accurate. And, not every shooting incident is as horrendous as the one in Newtown, Connecticut. In some shootings, only the shooter died. In other incidents, no one was killed. But, in each incident, at least one gun was fired in a school.
Also keep in mind, your chances of dying in a car crash in 2013 is approximately 1 in 7775, which is about the same as your chances of dying due to any type of gun violence in the next year.
The question we now need to ask ourselves is what is an acceptable level of risk? Are we willing to ride in cars? Are we willing to keep guns around? Are we willing to send our kids to school?
As far as the school shooting question goes, there is extremely little chance your child's school will experience a school shooting incident in 2013. But, we are virtually guaranteed to have a few school shootings somewhere in the US in the next year. It probably won't happen to us. It probably won't happen in our city. It probably won't even happen in our state.
But, it will happen to someone. It seems like we should do something about that, don't you think?
Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.