About This Special Edition on School Violence: Purpose and Approach

Last Updated: March 27, 2013

This article appeared in the RPM Special Edition on School Violence. The complete report is now available as a PDF; click here for details and to download or print.

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Special Edition on School Violence

In the United States, thirteen adolescents are murdered everyday. Eight children and teens die in gun-related incidents. (Centers for Disease Control, 2010, 2007). Almost every year there is some kind of mass shooting in an elementary or secondary school.

In response to these ongoing tragedies, we at the Rural Trust wanted to understand more about the nature of violence in U.S. schools and the safeguards, practices, and polices that are most likely to keep everyone in our schools safe.

Initially, we had two additional concerns. First, we feared that the Sandy Hook incident would promote calls for schools to increase policing in schools and tighten zero tolerance discipline polices. Both policies have been implemented largely in response to school shootings. Zero tolerance mandates strict punishments including suspension and expulsion for many disciplinary violations, including minor, non-violent, and even alleged infractions. School-based policing is highly associated with large increases in the incidence of students being placed in the justice system for non-criminal behaviors that can easily be handled by teachers and administrators.

As a result of these policies, tens of thousands of young people, especially African-American males, have been exposed to the criminal justice system, damaging both their school and life prospects. Such policies have become a serious issue for many of our constituents, especially in the South where, in many counties, race and class powerfully influence opportunity and punishment at school.

Second, we considered it a serious possibility that new policy initiatives might overlook the situational characteristics of schools and the nature of violence that occurs within them. Policies could do a lot of harm and little good if they are not based on clear understandings of whether violence plays out differently in schools than in other settings and whether different levels or kinds of schools experience different types of violence.

As we began our research, we were able to find information on youth homicide and suicide and some information on rates of gun deaths and accidents. The Children’s Defense Fund has very good resources related to a number of risks to children and youth. The Centers for Disease Control has useful information on youth violence. And, the National Center for Educational Statistics tracks school discipline and violence through the School Survey on Crime and Safety and the annual Indicators of School Crime and Safety reports. There are a variety of organizations that promote school safety and youth violence prevention.

We were not, however, able to find the kinds of details about violence in schools that we wanted. As we continued our research we began to realize that much of what we were seeking was in the stories of the events themselves: the back stories of the perpetrators, the circumstances of the incidents, the responses of schools and communities, and how incidents have been presented and understood in the public realm. So we decided to focus our efforts on finding and distilling information from accounts of specific incidents of school violence as reported in newspapers and other media.

For this special report we compiled some 700 accounts of violent events in which someone died or multiple victims were threatened at school. There is much to be learned from the accounts — from their variety, their specificity, and their commonalities. We trust that this report is a valuable addition to the current public dialogue on violence, gun policy, and school safety.

There are, however, several caveats that should be taken into account by readers. The first is that the report focuses on events that occur at school, school events, and while students are traveling to school. But many youth violence incidents with ramifications for schools occur off campus and after hours and are not included in our collection of events. Second, our review of available accounts is not a census of school violence incidents. We cannot know how many incidents never made it into media reports or how many incidents our search processes missed. Further, we found it difficult to identify and document events with fewer victims, particularly those that occurred prior to widespread internet reporting, so we know there have been more one-on-one incidents than are represented in the report. In addition, official figures for the most recent years have not yet been released, so we know that these numbers are also under-represented.

For these reasons, this report is best understood as a journalistic exploration rather than a statistical analysis. Our emphasis is on the patterns and circumstances that run through the stories and on the larger narratives that the stories, taken together, tell. We note that the patterns in our collection of incidents align with empirical research published elsewhere. For example, we found that states with relatively high numbers of school violence incidents tend also to have high levels of general gun violence. However, to the extent that we report numbers, we rely on tallies and rounded percentages to convey the most important themes.

One final note. As we have prepared this report, it has become increasingly evident that the United States is in and will likely continue a sprawling and highly partisan national debate on gun violence and gun laws. And it is equally clear that pundits and politicians will attempt to speak for “rural America” and corral or marginalize rural opinion into one camp or another (for example, by attempting to represent rural America as universally against all gun legislation), possibly as a deciding voice in the outcome of the debate.

In this report, as in all our work, the Rural Trust analyzes policy as it affects rural communities and their children and schools. And, as always, the Rural Trust works to bring rural perspectives to important policy issues. In the context of the issue of gun violence, especially, we challenge policymakers and media to pay attention to the complexity of the nation’s rural regions and issues, its vastness, and its diversity.

Most of all, we urge rural people to speak out. The debate on school safety, guns, and violence in the U.S. is too important to be corralled by any organization or political interest. It needs the authentic engagement of all America, especially rural America in all its varied perspectives and experiences.

Read more:

Centers for Disease Control, Resources on Youth Violence

Children’s Defense Fund

Federal information sources

Indicators of School Crime and Safety

School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS)


Read more from the RPM Special Edition on School Violence.