OSDFS Official Discusses Study that Tracks School Deaths

Bill Modzeleski serves as associate assistant deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. The Challenge interviewed Modzeleski recently to discuss school-associated violent deaths. The department works with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to collect data on each school-associated death.

Q: Why have ED and the CDC been collaborating on the school-associated violent death study?

A: In the early 1990s we had noticed an increase in school violence and were particularly troubled by the growing number of large-scale school shootings. The press picked up on the disturbing trend of young people coming into their schools to shoot classmates, teachers, or administrators. Congress took notice as well. Authorized as part of the Improving America’s Schools Act, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act established funds to help schools address factors that contribute to school-associated violence.

We needed to quantify the numbers of school-associated violent deaths, and at that time no federal agency was collecting these data. Because youth violence affects the public health and justice systems as well as the education system, it makes sense for ED to work collaboratively with the CDC and DOJ to monitor these events in a consistent and meaningful way.

Q: What data is collected, how is it collected, and how is it used?

The study collects detailed information about the victims and perpetrators, the schools where events occurred, and the circumstances surrounding the events. The CDC has a team of researchers who gather the data using a variety of media and Internet databases, vast contacts with state and local agencies, as well as police and school officials. Every identified case is researched first to determine if the incident occurred under the parameters set by the study.

We look at homicides, suicides, cases of legal intervention (meaning a victim who is killed by a police officer in the line of duty), and unintentional firearms deaths. To be considered school-associated, we include cases that occurred on the campus of an elementary or secondary school, on the way to or from school, or during an official school-sponsored event (including traveling to or from such an event). Victims include students and staff.

We use these data in several ways. First we are reporting them so that everyone has an idea of how many school-related deaths occur each year. Also we are finding patterns and commonalities in the events that may help schools prevent such deaths from happening. To help in this prevention, the data are used in developing interventions and shaping policies at the federal, state, and local levels.

Q: Don’t the FBI or local police agencies collect information on school shootings?

The FBI collects and reports national crime statistics but does not track schoolspecifi c incidents within those numbers. While some communities are able to get local crime data from their police departments, there are no centralized databases or national reporting mechanisms to track all school-related violent deaths.

Q: What do the data show?

We see two trend lines. From 1992–99 we see an even trend with approximately 34 school-associated deaths per year. After a decline to 13 deaths during the 1999–2000 school year, the numbers have been going up again. It is important to be cognizant that one multiple homicide will increase the numbers, so we want to be careful when looking at these numbers.

These data show that schools need to be prepared for the possibility of violent deaths because they can occur anywhere, but these events are still extremely rare occurrences. Other types of school victimization and criminal activity are much more common and require constant attention. The U.S. has 53 million students attending elementary and secondary schools, and a tiny fraction of them fall victim to such tragedy. Furthermore, we see that less than one percent of homicides with victims ages 5 to 18 are school associated.

Q: Where can readers go for more information on these school-associated violent deaths?

Look to the ED or CDC Web sites (http://www.ed.gov and http://www.cdc.gov) for links to the Indicators of School Crime and Safety to find the annual statistics.

Two articles have been published that describe findings from this study, School- Associated Violent Deaths in the United States, 1992 to 1994 and School-Associated Violent Deaths in the United States, 1994–1999, both in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Another set of articles on the more recent data is in development.

Additional studies on school shootings include the Safe School Initiative, an analysis of 37 school shootings (41 shooters) conducted by ED and the U.S. Secret Service. The 2002 findings are available at http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac.shtml. The FBI analysis of 18 school shootings is published in 1999’s The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective, available online at www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/school-shooter..