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Federal Government Would Track School Shooters' Motives Under Democrats' Bill

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Legislation passed by the House education committee Wednesday would for the first time provide an official definition for a school shooting and also require the federal government to track school shooters' motivations, as well as the demographics of shootings' victims and perpetrators. 

The School Shooting Safety and Preparedness Act, authored by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, would also task the U.S. Department of Education with collecting information about a school's safety protocols if a shooting occurs there, from its emergency response plans to its building design. In addition, the bill would require the feds to track the type of firearms used in school schootings, how they were obtained, and whether the school where a shooting occurred had armed educators. 

The bill would define a school shooting as an incident "during which one or more individuals were injured or killed by a firearm; and that occurred ... in, or on the grounds of, a school, even if before or after school hours; while the victim was traveling to or from a regular session at school; or while the victim was attending or traveling to or from an official school sponsored event." Accidental shootings would not be included.

The committee's vote in favor of the bill is part of a broader push from congressional Democrats to address gun violence. Senate Democrats, for example, are publicly advocating for expanding background checks for firearms sales. Democratic presidential candidates are making aggressive pitches about the issue. (Gabbard is one of them.) And with the school year under way, advocacy groups are urging lawmakers to change policies for guns; for example, see this ad from Sandy Hook Promise, an organization led by parents whose children died at Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly seven years ago that trains students and educators to prevent violence at school and advocates for solutions to gun violence.

Publicly, President Donald Trump has gone back and forth on the idea of expanding background checks, and whether there's a political opening for Democrats to walk through arm-in-arm with Trump remains unclear. Senate Republicans are also exploring proposals to enhance school safety.

The National Center for Education Statistics publishes aggregated data about violence at school and other information about school safety—see the NCES report on these topics for 2018, for example. But Democrats argued the legislation would help prevent information and data from being cherry-picked to serve different interests and distort the issue.

"This is a small, but important step towards ensuring that classrooms are safe places where parents can have peace of mind and children are free to learn," Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said at Wednesday's mark-up of the bill in the House committee. 

It's important to remember that there is no set profile of a school shooter. As Politics K-12 co-author Evie Blad wrote in February 2018, "There's a common misconception that school attackers are all young, white, socially isolated men who play too many violent video games. But school safety experts have said that profile is far too narrow and that schools need to be responsive to the safety concerns and social and emotional needs presented by all students to create a safe environment."

Those who plan to commit mass shootings, including at schools, often share their intentions in some fashion beforehand, according to a study by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center. However, threat assessment teams—created by many schools after the 2018 shootings in Parkland, Fla.—don't necessarily catch shooters before the act. In addition, the legislation doesn't make clear what sources the federal government could or must use to determine a school shooter's motivations. Gabbard's bill does say information about the motivation of the school shooters must include whether there was any "real or perceived bias."

The concept of tracking school shootings is far from new. Since the start of 2018, Education Week has maintained a tracker of school shootings. To date for 2019, we have counted 18 school shootings, resulting in three people killed and 34 injured. 

Photo: Santa Fe High School freshman Jai Gillard writes messages on each of the 10 crosses in front of the school in memory of those killed in the May 2018 shooting at the Texas school. Gillard knew all of those who died. (Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP)
 

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