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Are Schools' Discipline Policies Linked to Shootings? We Just Don't Know

Are discipline policies linked to school shootings? Does instituting alternative practices to suspension and expulsion, like restorative justice, make it more likely that a school could be targeted by an assailant or an angry student? 

Such questions, it's safe to say, have dominated the school safety field following two horrific mass school shootings in 2018 in Parkland, Fla. and Santa Fe, Texas.

In Parkland, some outspoken families and advocates blamed an alternative program in Broward County for obfuscating the shooter's pattern of disturbing behavior before the attack. They had a receptive ear at the U.S. Department of Education, which in late 2018 moved to rescind Obama-era guidance on school discipline aimed at curbing disproportionate disciplinary outcomes for Black students.

Advocates for those students have long argued that harsh discipline policies and "zero tolerance" regimes feed the "school to prison" pipeline. 

In response to a Congressional query about the link between discipline and shootings, the federal government's watchdog agency, the Goverment Accountability Office, set out to study the characteristics of a decade of shootings. Its answer is likely to please just about nobody: It could find no empirical research over that time period that directly linked discipline politices to school shootings.

Collecting the Data

Because there is no agreed-upon national definition of what constitutes a school shooting, the GAO had to create its own. It looked at any incident in which a gun was fired at school, on school grounds, events, or activities, or before or after those activities. This included accidents and suicides.

(Education Week's own school shooting tracker, on the other hand, does not include suicides; here's where to find our criteria so you can compare and contrast methods.)

The GAO ultimately examined 318 schootings over the 2009-10 to 2018-19 school years, using other federal data sets to incorporate information on the characteristics of those schools. 

Here are some of the GAO's findings. They generally match up with the patterns seen in other analyses of school shootings.

  • Echoing a recent U.S. Secret Service report, the GAO found that nearly a third of shootings, or 31 percent, were motivated by grievances. The next largest category was accidental shootings, at 16 percent; school-targeted attacks made up 14 percent. Only 5 percent of shootings had a target victim.
  • In total, nearly half of the shootings were carried out by students or other students; in nearly 20 percent of cases, the assailant's relationship with the school was unknown and in 12 percent of cases, the shooter had no relationship to the school.
  • Shootings that occured outside of schools were more likely to be related to a dispute or grievances than those inside schools, which were more likely to be accidents or directly aimed at that school. (See graphic.) 

A Debate Unresolved 

But perhaps the most critical finding is that, despite the roiling debate over the connection betweend discipline policies and shootings, GAO was unable to locate even one study that addressed it empirically.

This, the report notes, is partly because school violence typically has multiple, overlapping factors (like prior abuse, peer conflict, mental-health issues, and so on).  But it's also because, depite news headlines, school shootings are statistically still so rare that it's hard to design a study with a cause-and-effect design to examine the link between a discipline policy and school shootings.

Instead, the GAO collected studies that looked at specific disciplinary approaches—including social-emotional learning, threat assessment, exclusionary discipline, and restorative practices—on other school safety outcomes, typically broader measures of violent behavior or perceptions of student safety. Of those studies, not all were random-assignment studies—the "gold standard" for answering cause-and-effect questions—which meant that the agency couldn't draw any bottom-line conclusions from them.

And the results didn't tilt strongly in one way or another; one study, for example, found less violent behavior among elementary students who participated in a social-emotional program, while another linked upticks in violence in an urban school system to the removal of its zero-tolerance approach.

School shootings are rare. But they're also terrifying, and there is still much we need to learn to understand about how to prevent them, while ensuring students attend safe and supportive learning environments.

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