After Parkland: What we’ve learned tracking school shootings for 5 years
The Washington Post February 14, 2023
The number was staggering.
In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High massacre on Feb. 14, 2018, my colleague Steven Rich and I reported for the first time how many children in the United States had endured a shooting at a K-12 school since 1999, and the tally was far higher than what we expected: more than 187,000.
The Washington Post ran that figure in huge type atop its front page on the day that survivors of the Parkland, Fla., shooting held a massive March for Our Lives rally in D.C., where tens of thousands of other young people joined them. Throughout the sprawling crowd, demonstrators held up copies of The Post, a tangible illustration of the crisis’s catastrophic scope.
Now, just five years later, and despite a pandemic that closed many campuses for nearly a year, the number has exploded, climbing past 338,000.
We know that because we’ve continued to maintain a unique database that tracks the total number of children exposed to gun violence at school, as well as other vital details, including the number of people killed and injured; the age, sex, race and gender of the accused shooters; the types and sources of their weapons; the demographic makeup of the schools; the presence of armed security guards; the random, targeted or accidental nature of the shootings.
Neither of us anticipated that we would still be doing this work in 2023 — on Parkland’s fifth anniversary — but it’s never been more urgent. The subject of school shootings often makes people feel hopeless, especially at a time when America is experiencing its worst stretch in history. But we have now studied 366 separate incidents of campus gun violence, and the data, along with dozens of stories on the damaged children it represents, has taught us that there are reasons to remain hopeful, none more so than this one: Most school shootings are preventable.
That’s just one of the lessons we’ve learned about a singularly American epidemic.
The invisible victims
Our database wouldn’t exist if not for a school shooting that almost no one remembers.
More than a year before Parkland, a 14-year-old boy in rural South Carolina took a handgun from his father’s dresser and killed him with it. Then the teenager drove to Townville Elementary and opened fire on a playground scattered with first-graders. His gun jammed 12 seconds after he fired the first round, but by then he had shot a teacher and two students, including Jacob Hall, the smallest kid in his class. Jacob, who was 6, died three days later.
The story quickly faded from the national news because only a single child died, but when I traveled to Townville, I heard not about one victim, but hundreds.
Siena Kibilko, a first-grader who’d also been on the playground, began locking all the doors at her house and dropping to the ground when she heard loud noises. Jacob’s friend, Karson Robinson, was stricken with guilt, convinced that he should have saved Jacob’s life. For the following Valentine’s Day, Karson wrote a card in his memory: “I loved him but he diyd but he is stil a life in my hart.”
The torment extended beyond the kids closest to Jacob. Children who had been inside the school — who didn’t see or hear anything — were long consumed with fear and anxiety.
“Noises are different now,” Townville Principal Denise Fredericks told me six months after the shooting, recalling the panic that ensued when a balloon popped at a school dance.
Fredericks banned balloons at the spring festival that year — and now, six years later, she won’t allow them this spring either. Her students haven’t forgotten what happened in those 12 seconds. Some of them still ask to talk to her about it.
“Our recovery,” she said, “it’s not a linear thing.”
My first trip there was revelatory because it made clear that the vast majority of Americans fundamentally misunderstood the scope of this problem.
Each shooting becomes synonymous with its death toll, the lone figure most people remember. At Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., it was 13. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas: 17. At Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas: 21. At Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.: 26.
After reporting in Townville, I began trying to add up how many children Siena and Karson represented, poring through thousands of news stories to identify every shooting I could find dating back to the Columbine attack in April 1999. My colleague Steven, a database editor, soon joined the effort, expanding the areas we tracked and analyzed.
For reasons that researchers are still trying to understand, gun violence soared during the pandemic, a trend that spilled onto K-12 campuses when many of them reopened in the spring of 2021.
By nearly every meaningful measure, 2022 was the worst year of school shootings in history. Across 46 acts of violence during school hours, 34 students and adults died while more than 43,000 children were exposed to gunfire at the places they go to learn and grow.
That final, often invisible group has remained our focus because of kids such as Jaydien Canizales, who was 9 on the day in May that a man with a semiautomatic rifle walked into his fourth-grade classroom at Robb Elementary. Jaydien hid under a table, watching the massacre of his teachers and classmates through a black cloth.
Still, he is not legally considered a victim of anything.
“One of my cousins, the cops dragged him in the hallway when they were taking us out. I saw the bullet in his head,” he said in an interview. “I lost some of my closest friends. All my best friends.”
A culture of fear
School shootings are rare.
That is, statistically, true, in the sense that a child is highly unlikely to experience one. But it’s also an assertion that infuriates many people, and for good reason. Are school shootings in the United States “rare” compared with the number in, say, Canada or England or Germany or any other developed nation? No, they are not.
Our database also excludes hundreds of incidents every year that don’t technically qualify but that still terrify and traumatize tens of thousands of children: shootings at after-school sporting events, for example, or gunshots fired just off campus.
And almost no students can escape the reminders that someone could open fire in their classrooms at any moment. In a country where gun violence is now the leading cause of death for kids and teens, millions of children must walk through metal detectors or run through active-shooter drills meant to prepare them for the threat of mass murder. By one estimate, school systems employ as many as 20,000 resource officers nationwide in an effort to keep their buildings safe.
We often get emails from men of a certain age who suggest that the drills children participate in now are no worse than what they experienced during the Cold War.
“I remember school drills where we were taught how to survive a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union,” one man wrote, adding that “back then everyone was stoic and there was no social media to incite mass hysteria.”
The difference, of course, is that the Russians never dropped nukes on kids in Newtown or Parkland or Uvalde. For students today, the threat is not theoretical. They have seen and heard about children just like them who were shot dead in classrooms just like theirs.
Whether drills harm students more than they help them remains a point of debate — one that demands more research — but because there are no universally followed best practices, schools take dramatically different, and sometimes haphazard, approaches to prepping students for potential danger.
Ten months after Parkland, on a Florida campus 200 miles north, Lake Brantley High declared a “code red” emergency over the intercom, indicating that the 2,700-student campus faced immediate danger.
“Active Shooter reported at Brantley,” read a text sent to teachers. “Initiate a Code Red Lockdown.”
Students wept, had asthma attacks, messaged parents goodbye — but the threat wasn’t real. It had been a drill, kept secret “so people will take it seriously,” a spokesman later argued, insisting it was “the only way to get their attention.”
In October, during a drill at another school in Florida, a teacher was accused of locking a fifth-grader out of his classroom, forcing the boy to hide in a bathroom stall where he feared the shooter (who did not exist) would find and kill him. The same month, parents of grade-schoolers in Texas complained that mishandled drills had left their children wetting the bed and begging for special locks to keep “bad adults” out of their bedrooms.
And then there’s the consequence of school shootings that could never be described as rare: actual lockdowns.
In the 2017-2018 school year, we found that more than 4.1 million children suffered through at least one of them — and nearly 60% were caused by gun violence or the threat of it.
To complete the first-of-its-kind analysis, Steven reviewed 20,000 news stories, and we collected data from school districts in 31 of the country’s largest cities, but our tally was almost certainly a severe undercount. Many school districts do not track lockdowns, and hundreds never make the news, particularly when they happen at urban schools attended primarily by children of color.
The sudden order to hide in silence from a potential intruder can panic students, who have wept and soiled themselves, written farewell messages to family members and pleaded with parents to save them before they were killed.
“This is a clear and pressing public health issue,” Steven Schlozman, a child psychiatrist and associate professor at Dartmouth College, told us at the time. “We have very good data that children in proximity to frightening circumstances, such as those that trigger school lockdowns, are at risk for lasting symptoms. These include everything from worsening academic and social progression to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, post-traumatic symptomatology and substance abuse.”
In one case, at a school in Charlotte, a 12-year-old boy was so overcome with dread that he wrote a will, scribbling his home address and his mom’s name at the top of the page.
“I am sorry for anything I have done,” he wrote.
“I am scared to death.”
“I will miss you.”
“I hope that you are going to be ok with me gone.”
Who the shooters are
To many Americans, the Columbine students who opened fire on their classmates still embody the archetypal school shooter. One was 17, the other 18. Both were white and angry and heavily armed. They lived in the suburbs and admired the Nazis. They planned their attack in great detail but killed at random.
Another notion — that they were bullied loners motivated by revenge — also has persisted in popular culture, despite years of reporting that refutes those rumors.
Between then and now, we’ve assessed another 300-plus shooters and can say with certainty that there is no archetype.
The three youngest in our database were all 6 years old, and two of them pulled their triggers on purpose. One killed a classmate in Michigan 23 years ago, and the other was accused of firing a bullet into his teacher’s chest in Virginia last month.
The oldest was 74, a substitute teacher in Alabama who brought a handgun to a first-grade class in 2019 and unintentionally fired it in his pocket, injuring a student.
There have also been at least a dozen female shooters, including a sixth-grader who wounded three people at her Idaho middle school and a sophomore who killed her girlfriend, then herself, at their Arizona high school.
Many shooters do share similar attributes, though. Their median age is 16, and nearly all — 96% — are male. Unlike the Columbine killers, most intend to harm specific people, and the overwhelming majority show no signs of debilitating mental illness, such as psychosis or schizophrenia.
We’re not always provided an assailant’s demographic background, but among those we do know, the shooter’s race almost always reflects the campus’s population, with white shooters firing in predominantly white schools and Black shooters firing in predominantly Black ones.
The 10 worst assaults account for 57% of the entire death toll since 1999, and all but two of them were committed by white attackers, a reality that has left much of the public with the false impression that school shootings almost exclusively affect white students.
Children of color, however, are far more likely to experience campus gun violence: more than twice as much for Hispanic students and over three times as much for Black students.
The worst incidents — most commonly carried out with semiautomatic rifles or shotguns — also have distorted people’s understanding of what attackers tend to use. Among the cases in which authorities identified the firearm, a single handgun is the weapon of choice 80% of the time.
But no data point about shooters and their guns has been more revelatory than where the former group obtains the latter.
We have reviewed 181 shootings committed by children since Columbine, and within that group, we found 132 cases in which the weapons’ sources were made public.
The young would-be shooters rarely bought firearms on the street or stole them from strangers’ cars or houses, because they didn’t need to. In 86% of the cases we examined, the children found the guns in the homes of their friends, relatives or parents.
Preventing school shootings
More gun laws. More armed guards. More metal detectors. More cameras. More bulletproof windows. More drills. More suspensions. More therapists. More prayers. More guns.
With every new shooting comes a new round of (mostly old) ideas on how to stop them.
Until this past summer, when Congress passed a gun-safety bill for the first time in decades, federal lawmakers had done virtually nothing to address the problem, and it could take years to determine whether their recent effort makes any difference.
State legislators, mostly in blue states, have made incremental changes to their regulations, but shootings continue to happen in every type of community, regardless of politics, economics or geography.
As a consequence, the onus to keep children safe has largely fallen on the schools themselves. The result? A private industry that brings in $3.1 billion a year selling largely unproven security systems to districts desperate to do something.
After Parkland, I traveled to a school security conference in Orlando where entrepreneurs from across the country had converged, hoping to capitalize on a panic that had ballooned safety budgets.
Among the items being peddled: a $2,900 ballistic whiteboard — adorned with adorable animal illustrations and pocked with five bullet holes — that weighed 300 pounds; a $4,000 armored classroom door that could allegedly stop bullets, identify the weapon, photograph the shooter and notify police; a $500,000 door security system designed to detect students smuggling weapons.
The developer of that system, Justin Kuhn, argued that, if school officials really valued their students’ lives, they should have no problem paying his asking price. He had already divided the total cost of his product by the number of people (17) killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
“That’s $29,000 a kid,” he said. “Every person would pay $29,000 a kid to have their kid alive.”
But neither Kuhn nor almost any other vendor could prove their products would save a kid’s life.
We know, too, that dozens of shootings have happened at schools protected by armed security guards. In fact, across 366 shootings, we have identified just two instances in which a resource officer gunned down an active shooter. To put that in perspective, at least nine shootings have been halted by malfunctioning weapons or by the attacker’s inability to handle them.
There is hope, though.
In a country with more guns than people, it may be impossible to stop every act of campus violence, but with a few simple, straightforward steps, it is possible to substantially reduce an annual total that has cracked 40 two years in a row.
Every school should be able to quickly lock its doors, a basic security function that has consistently saved lives but that many campuses still lack. At Robb Elementary, teachers couldn’t secure their classrooms from the inside, a problem that thousands of public schools continue to face.
Of course, the best way to save lives is to stop potential attackers before they ever reach campus. We once surveyed schools that had experienced shootings, and several told us that only one thing could have made a difference: a tip from someone who knew it might happen. And many people do know, because shooters tend to talk about their plans.
Five years ago, Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit co-founded by parents who lost children in Newtown, launched the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, which allows users to privately submit safety concerns through a computer, phone or app.
The system has prevented at least 13 planned school shootings, according to the organization, which says local law enforcement and district officials confirmed the credibility of each case. More than 100 other acts of potential campus violence have also been thwarted, and at least 406 children contemplating suicide received help before they took their own lives.
Despite that success, and the fact that it costs school districts nothing to use, just 950 of them — out of more than 13,000 — have signed up for it.
The deficiencies in basic school security measures and the slow adoption of evidence-backed reporting systems underscore how we, as a society, have failed to embrace obvious solutions.
While we know, for example, that people of any age or gender can bring a gun to school and fire it, one very specific group is, by far, the most dangerous. Males between the ages of 15 and 20 are responsible for 74% of school shooting deaths since 1999.
What are we doing to reach that population and, more importantly, ensure that they don’t have easy access to deadly weapons?
The federal legislation passed this past summer makes some attempt to help, providing money to bolster red-flag laws that allow officials to temporarily confiscate firearms and enhancing background checks for gun buyers under 21. But lawmakers stopped short of prohibiting people in that age group from purchasing semiautomatic rifles, despite repeated pleas from the parents of children slaughtered in Uvalde.
The country has also been reluctant to go after a group that is among the most responsible for our school shooting epidemic: the people whose negligence allows children to obtain their guns in the first place. Over the past 24 years, we have identified only 10 instances in which the adult owners were criminally charged because they had failed to lock up their firearms.
Laws requiring people to secure their weapons, or simply to ensure that kids don’t get ahold of them, reduce the risk that children will shoot themselves or others, according a growing body of evidence. But just 23 states and the District have passed any such regulation.
As journalists, we’re not in the business of pushing policy, but we can say this: Children commit more than half the country’s school shootings — none of which would be possible if those children didn’t have access to guns.
That includes the one in Townville, where the horror of what happened in 2016 still lingers.
LB, whom I’m referring to by his initials because his family spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, was standing near 6-year-old Jacob Hall when the teenager opened fire, fatally wounding his friend. LB, then a first-grader, had been a regular kid before that day, making decent grades, playing baseball and football, enjoying rides on the lawn mower with his great-grandfather, “Papa,” with whom he lived.
Afterward, he was so overcome with anxiety that he began to soil himself, dropping 20 pounds. He didn’t feel safe in public unless someone with him had a gun, refusing to run out on the field for rec league baseball games until his uncle showed him the pistol in his pocket.
LB obsessed over the shooter, his great-grandmother said, and fantasized about killing him.
One day, nearly three years after the shooting, he called himself a baby, and when she scolded him for that, he said he knew how different from other kids he’d become. He was about to turn 9, LB told her, and he was so scared all the time that he still had to sleep every night with his Papa.
It’s because of that boy, and the hundreds of thousands of other children like him, that we’ll keep counting.