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Within hours of Tuesday’s shooting at Reynolds High School, a startling statistic began circulating on Twitter and other social media sites: The incident was the 74th school shooting in the U.S. since the December 2012 shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
That works out to nearly one school shooting a week since Newtown, when 20 students and six staff members were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
But is it true? A lot, it turns out, depends on how "school shooting" is defined.
The statistic comes from Everytown for Gun Safety, a group based in New York and started by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a noted gun-control advocate.
Erika Soto Lamb, the group’s communications director, wrote in an email that incidents were classified as school shootings "when a firearm was discharged inside a school building or on school or campus grounds, as documented in publicly reported news accounts." Not included were "incidents in which guns were brought into schools, but not fired there, or were fired off school grounds after having been possessed in schools."
That definition closely follows one used by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics to compile its annual "Indicators of School Crime and Safety."
But is that how most people think of a school shooting?
Everytown’s list of 74, for example, includes an Aug. 15, 2013, incident in which police were called to a high school parking lot at 2 a.m. in Clarksville, Tennessee, where they found the body of a 38-year-old homicide victim with no links to the school.
In another 2013 incident on the list, a 23-year-old Morehouse College student in Atlanta was shot and killed. His body was found near the college, according to news reports, but not on campus.
Overall, 42 people, including the shooters, lost their lives in the 74 incidents, and 38 were wounded.
CNN also dissected the numbers Wednesday and decided just 15 of the incidents were true school shootings. The news organization disqualified what it called "personal arguments," accidents, drug deals and alleged gang activities. It included only incidents involving "a minor or adult actively shooting inside a school."
If Everytown for Gun Safety used a definition that was overly broad, we found, CNN used one that was too restrictive.
We decided to look at the question from another angle: In how many of the cases did students or faculty face imminent danger from an armed assailant on or near school grounds? By that measure, 35 roughly match the situation at Reynolds High School, where a shooter was on campus during school hours.
Some of those events include what police reports described as gang-related shootings.
A brawl broke in a Chicago State University gym Jan. 16, 2013, for example, as players were going through the handshake line. Security officers ended the fight, but gunshots broke out a short time later outside the gym, killing a 17-year-old.
In another incident six days later, a janitor was wounded by crossfire after a fight erupted between two people at a Houston-area community college. Three months later, April two women were hurt by a man with a shotgun at New River Community College in Christianburg, Virginia.
Charles C. Johnson, an independent journalist, also looked into the list Wednesday and concluded that definitions mean everything in the debate.
"It’s not a school shooting," Johnson contended in an online post, "when someone goes and shoots a specific person on campus. It’s a shooting that happens to take place at a school."
Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland, gave us his definition, which closely follows Everytown’s:
Inside a school, on school property, on or immediately around a school bus, or in the immediate area or a public, private or parochial school.
On the way to or from a school for a school session.
While attending, or on the way to or from, a school-sponsored event.
As a clear result of school-related incidents/conflicts, activities, regardless of whether on or off actual school property.
Precise numbers, however, are difficult, he said. When it comes to shootings on college campuses, federal reporting requirements ensure accurate counts. Elementary and secondary statistics are something else.
"There is no mandatory reporting requirement for grades pre-K through 12," Trump said. "What we’ve left with is a hodgepodge collection of various academic surveys. The data are really flawed."
"Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2012," U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics
Email interview with Erika Soto Lamb, communications director, Everytown for Gun Safety, June 11, 2014.
CNN, "A Closer Look: How Many School Shootings Since Newtown?" June 11, 2014.