On February 14, 2018, the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida became the spark that once again ignited a national conversation about violence in schools.
Amid the political agendas, recriminations, activism, and just plain fear, a critical element has been overlooked — the need to move beyond speculation and anecdotes about school safety to a data-based analysis of the threats and incidents of violence that have occurred in K-12 United States schools during the past academic year. This report provides insights and a critical analysis of the 2017-2018 school year.
The Educator’s School Safety Network (ESSN), a national non-profit school safety organization, has compiled the most current information on threats and incidents of violence in America’s schools to examine the frequency, scope and severity of the problem. In the 2017-2018 school year, more than 3,659 threats and incidents of violence occurred in American K-12 schools. Perhaps the most concerning figures are the significant increases in threats and incidents from school year to school year. There were at least 3,380 threats recorded in the 2017-2018 school year, a 62 percent increase from 2,085 threats in the 2016-2017 school year.
The increase in actual incidents is even more alarming. This past school year included at least 279 incidents of violence compared to 131 events in the 2016-2017 school year – an increase of 113 percent.
Concurrent with these troubling findings, school administrators and law enforcement officials find themselves in the untenable position of having to make critical decisions about the validity of threats with little to no threat assessment protocols, few established best practices, outdated procedures, and typically, a complete lack of education-based school safety training. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, gun related issues and law enforcement solutions have become the central focus to the exclusion of a comprehensive, all-hazards approach to both violence prevention and response.
Summary of Findings
There were 3,380 threats recorded in the 2017-2018 school year, a 62 percent increase from 2,085 threats in the 2016-2017 school year. There were 279 incidents of violence that occurred in the 2017-2018 school year, compared to 131 events in 2016-2017 school year – an increase of 113 percent.
Threats of Violence
- For purposes of this research, ‘threats’ are defined as an expressed intent to do harm. The number of threats in the 2017-2018 school year increased 62 percent from the 2016-2017 school year. In addition, there was a significant increase within the 2017-2018 school year itself. In the spring of 2018, 1,494 MORE threats occurred than in the fall of 2017, resulting in an increase of 159 percent.
Types of Threats
- The most common threats recorded in the 2017-2018 school year were shooting threats (38.8 percent of all threats), followed by generalized or unspecified threats of violence (35.8 percent), and bomb threats (22.5 percent). This is a slight change from the 2016-2017 school year when bomb threats were the most common (34.6 percent) followed by shooting threats (30 percent) and unspecified threats (26 percent).
Method of Delivery of Threats
- While the method of delivery of threats was not always reported, when it was reported, social media was the most common source of threats, accounting for 39.2 percent of all threats in the 2017-2018 school year. This is relatively unchanged from 40 percent in the 2016-2017 school year. In 2017-2018, written threats were discovered within the school 20 percent of time, most commonly in the restroom. Verbal comments were the source of threats 12.7 percent of the time.
Individuals Who Made Threats of Violence
- During the 2017-2018 school year, ESSN began to track information related to the sex, age, and affiliation of those who either made threats or perpetrated incidents of violence. While this information was not always known or reported, when it was available, it was analyzed for both incidents and threats. When the data was available, 81 percent of all threats of violence during the 2017- 2018 school year came from students. Juveniles who were not students at the impacted school were the source of threats 7.3 percent of the time, followed by adults (other than parents or staff) 6.8 percent of the time. Parents and staff were the source of the threat less than one percent of the time. Males were the source of threats 83 percent of the time. Regardless of sex, the age of those who made threats (when known) ranged from nine to 81 years of age: 41 percent were 13 – 15 years old, 40 percent were 16 – 18 years old, 12 percent were 18 years or older, and eight percent were 12 years or younger.
Types of Schools Impacted by Threats
- In the 2017-2018 school year, high schools were impacted most frequently by threats (59 percent), followed by middle schools (25 percent), and elementary schools (17 percent).
The Parkland Shooting’s Impact on Threats
- Forty-three percent of all the threats documented in the 2017- 2018 school year occurred just in the 30 days after Parkland. It is important to note that this number is significantly underreported due to the sheer volume of threats that occurred in the days following the tragedy, which resulted in numerous threats never being reported in the media. Despite this, prior to the Parkland event, there was an average of 10.2 threats per day, which rose to an average of 24.2 per day after.
Incidents of Violence
- The 2017-2018 school year saw 279 incidents of violence compared to 131 events in the 2016-2017 school year. In addition to the increase of 113 percent from the previous year, a significant increase in the number of violent incidents occurred from fall of 2017 to spring of 2018. The rate of violent incidents increased by 109 percent from the fall to the spring of the 2017-2018 school year. 90 violent incidents occurred in the fall of 2018 and 188 incidents of violence occurred in the spring of 2018.
Types of Incidents
The most frequent type of incident during the 2017- 2018 school year was guns found on campus, (77 instances or 28 percent of all incidents), followed by shootings or shots fired (70 events or 25 percent of all incidents), and thwarted attacks or plots (38 events or 14 percent of all incidents).
- Guns found — The number of guns found on campus was not only the most common incident, but also an area that showed a significant increase. The 77 guns reported in the entire 2017-2018 school year was an overall increase of a staggering 267 percent. Only 21 guns were reported in the 2016- 2017 school year. There was also a significant increase in guns brought on campus after the Parkland shooting, with 28 guns found before and 49 after, a 75 percent increase within the same school year.
- Shootings and/or shots fired — The manner in which “school shootings” or “shots fired” are defined differs between data sets. For the purpose of this report, an incident was categorized as a “shooting” when shots were deliberately fired on the campus of a school with the intent to cause harm. An event was categorized as “shots fired” when a weapon was discharged on school grounds that was not considered targeted violence. There were 35 school shootings in the 2017-2018 school year, a 30 percent increase from the 27 shootings that occurred in the 2016-2017 school year. The number of incidents of shots fired also increased from 21 in 2016-2017 to 35 in 2017-2018. In the 2016-2017 school year, shootings or instances of shots fired accounted for a higher percent of incidents (36.6 percent) compared to 25 percent this past year, but the actual number of shootings or shots fired was higher in the 2017- 2018 school year — a total of 70 versus 49.
- Thwarted plots — More than 38 planned attacks were thwarted during the 2017-2018 school year, comprising 14 percent of all incidents recorded. Seventy-one percent of all the thwarted plots in the school year (27 potential attacks) occurred from January to June of 2018, compared to 29 percent of the thwarted attacks (11 instances) that were discovered in the fall of 2017. More than half (55 percent) of all the thwarted plots in the school year were uncovered after the Parkland shooting on February 14th.
- Bomb incidents – One detonation, four explosive devices, and 22 suspicious items accounted for 10 percent of all violent incidents in the 2017-2018 school year. In the 2016-2017 school year, two detonations, two explosive devices, and 24 suspicious items accounted for 21 percent of all violent incidents. Still, bomb threats and incidents accounted for 22 percent of all the threats and incidents recorded this past school year, compared to 37 percent of all threats and incidents the previous year.
- Suicides on campus – Suicides that occurred on school campuses accounted for four percent of all violent incidents. While this percentage hasn’t changed significantly when compared to the 2016-2017 school year, the actual number of suicides more than doubled from four to 10 in 2017-2018.
Individuals Who Perpetrated Violence
As was the case with threats, the majority (79 percent) of all violent incidents in the 2017-2018 school year were perpetrated by students followed by adults who were not parents or staff members (14 percent). The rate of violence by staff, parent, or non-student juvenile perpetrators was two percent or less for each group. Ninety-four percent of all incidents of violence were perpetrated by males. Regardless of sex, the age of the known perpetrators of violence ranged from eight – 57 years of age. 44 percent were 16 -18 years old, 30 percent were 13 – 15 years old, 20 percent were 18 years or older, and five percent were 12 years or younger.
Types of Schools Where Violence Occurred
The breakdown of the type of schools impacted by incidents of violence is similar to that of threats noted earlier in the report. During the 2017-2018 school year, 72 percent of violent incidents occurred in high schools, 22 percent in middle schools, and 16 percent in elementary schools.
The Overall Impact of the Parkland Shooting
An examination of pre and post Parkland data indicates that while the actual number of violent incidents increased overall in the 2017-2018 school year, the increase was not particularly significant after the Parkland shooting. Roughly half of the violent incidents took place before the shooting and half after. There were 136 incidents of violence in the school year before the Parkland shooting (49 percent) and 142 incidents after (51 percent). It could be argued that the Parkland shooting was not the catalyst for the violent incidents and threats that followed, but was instead a horrific example of the overall increase in violence that was already occurring during the 2017-2018 school year. As noted earlier in the report, there were significant increases, however, in both the frequency of threats, and the number of guns brought to school in the days immediately following the shooting event in Parkland.
30 Days After Parkland
The most significant impact of the Parkland shooting was in the immediate aftermath of the event. Schools were impacted the most during this time period as related to both threats and incidents of violence. In the 30 days immediately following the tragedy: 35 percent of all school-based threats occurred, 27 percent of all violent incidents occurred. The most dramatic increase in the 30-day time period was noted in the number of guns found on school campuses in the wake of the shooting: 36 guns were found on campus – that’s 47 percent of guns found all school year.
This report addresses two factors that are impediments to improving school safety: (1) the lack of consistent information about violent threats and incidents in schools along with recommendations for safety practices, and (2) the fragmentation of information and resources between the educational and emergency response communities. Although catastrophic events in schools may be rare, the potential for violence exists in all schools, every school day. The first critical step for improvement is to shift the thinking about school safety from an occasional concern to an everyday operation for educators that involves planning for, preventing, and responding to the potential for violence.