The Department of Education vastly overstated the number of school shootings that occurred from 2015 to 2016, according to an investigative report by NPR.
The Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2018 April report on school climate and safety for the 2015 to 2016 school year, published by the Department of Education, claims that 235 schools, about 0.2 percent of U.S. schools, “reported at least one incident involving a school-related shooting.”
NPR reportedly reached out to every school mentioned in the report. Of the 176 schools that responded, only 11 confirmed that incidents meeting the government criteria for a school shooting occurred, while at least four schools miscategorized the incidents they reported.
The Department of Education said in response to the NPR report that it relies on schools to self-report accurately. The DOE plans to publish updated data this fall and told NPR it will not republish the current report for the 2015 to 2016 school year.
The DOE’s number of reported incidents also contrasts sharply with reports for that year from other from other organizations, such as the ACLU of Southern California, which confirmed fewer than 12 school shooting incidents, and the Every Town for Gun Safety database, which found only 29 shootings at K-12 schools from mid-August 2015 to June of 2016. The ETGS database report, based on media reports, shares only seven incidents in common with the DOE report.
As for how such a vast discrepancy between report and reality could occur, some school officials said that in some cases it was a matter of user error with the digital reporting system.
“I think someone pushed the wrong button,” Jeff Davis, a superintendent at Ventura Unified School District in Southern California, told NPR.
The school district misreported to the CRDC that 26 shooting incidents occurred in the 2015-2016 school year. That number doesn’t come close to what the outgoing superintendent, Joe Richards, recalls as reality.
Davis said that Richards “has been here for almost 30 years and he doesn’t remember any shooting.”
“We are in this weird vortex of what’s on this screen and what reality is,” he added.
In the case of Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which was reported to have had shooting incidents in 37 of its schools, user error struck again. Roseann Canfora, chief communications officer for the school district, told NPR that 37 schools had actually reported “possession of a knife or a firearm” in response to the previous question on the survey, which meant that the number 37 had been entered in the wrong place.
Various other school districts encountered similar problems, either with the wording of the survey, outright user error, or suspected errors in the survey’s coding, which in some cases inflated incidents involving scissors to those involving the discharge of a firearm.
School districts also complained that the CRDC’s surveys ask for information that states already collect, but at a level of detail they don’t currently record or in a different format. Districts also noted a “lack of clarity in the definitions of key terms,” such as whether a voluntary paintball gun fight constituted “possession of a firearm” or an “attack with a weapon.”
The subject of school shootings is also relatively new, according to Deborah Temkin, a researcher and program director at Child Trends, which means that schools may not have been fully prepared to report on them. Temkin also noted that, even though reporting that nearly 240 schools experienced shooting incidents is an overstatement, it still falls within the margin of error, since “240 schools is less than half of 1 percent.”
An Education Department spokeswoman, Liz Hill, told NPR that “at least five districts have submitted requests to OCR to amend the school-related shootings data that they submitted for the 2015-16 CRDC.”
The DOE will issue updates based on those corrections, called “errata,” to the current data.
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