Inflating the threat of school shootings leads to policies that he argues can be harmful to students—such as arming teachers with guns and operating active shooter drills at schools that result in stress and anxiety that experts say is needless.
The United States is experiencing a record-setting year for mass shootings, according to James Alan Fox, a Northeastern professor who maintains the longest-running and most extensive data source on mass killings.
The growing number of casualties is fueled by tragedies like the recent mass shooting of five people at a Colorado nightclub—an event that has also contributed to a rise in hate crimes nationally, according to Carlos Cuevas, co-director of Northeastern’s Violence and Justice Research Lab.
“I’ve been studying mass killings for over 40 years and I am quite confident that there has never been a year where we’ve had so many,” says Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern.
“The point is, you need to have a clear set of data in order to know what to do about it,” Fox says.
The horror and tragedy of mass shootings in American schools, churches and other public places capture the nation’s attention But these are only part of the larger violence of mass killings – deaths by guns, knives, fires, vehicles and other weapons in public and in private – that plague the U.S., research shows.
“We focus a lot on these shootings, which are awful,” Fox says. “They absolutely impact the entire community when they happen. But they are extremely rare.”
And yet, adds Fox, the events sometimes result in drastic measures within schools.
“Forty states require schools to conduct active-shooter drills,” Fox says. “Some of the schools do these very aggressive drills involving fake blood and someone running around with a gun. I’ve heard of schools that have unannounced drills and they get on the public address system and announce, “This is not a drill.'”
Fox says these measures have a deep impact on students. He cites a 2020 social media study that linked active shooter drills in school to increases in student depression, stress and anxiety, as well as physiological health problems among students from 5 years old through high school age.
Instead of organizing live shooter drills, Fox recommends that administrators and teachers instruct students on how to respond in the rare case when a shooter invades their space at school.
“When you get on an airplane, they don’t do a drill—they just tell you what to do in the case of a water landing,” Fox says. “There are things we can do that will make kids safer without scaring them.”
There have been 35 mass shootings in 2022, says Fox. The escalation has been driven by what Fox calls “an unprecedented surge” of 13 mass shootings resulting in four or more deaths since Oct. 3.
“That’s an average of about two mass shootings per week,” Fox says, “compared with the usual average of two per month.”
In addition to the recent mass shootings, this month has seen two mass killings not involving a gun, including the stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students last week.
The U.S. has suffered 39 mass killings overall in 2022, says Fox.
The massacre at Club Q in Colorado Springs on Saturday has been identified as a hate crime, according to court records. Anderson Aldrich, 22, is accused of killing five people and injuring 25 more at the LGBTQ nightclub before two people tackled him.
U.S. hate crimes have risen over five of the past six years, according to FBI data. In 2020, the last full year for which records are available, there were 8,263 incidents.
“But that’s the very, very tip of a very big iceberg,” says Cuevas, a Northeastern professor of criminology and criminal justice.
More than 60% of the reported incidents in 2020 were motivated by race, ethnicity or ancestry. About 16% were based on sexual orientation, which appears to have driven the Colorado attack.
“That gives you a sense of the trend,” Cuevas says. “But it’s very much an underreported crime.”
A general heightening of violent rhetoric has contributed to student anxiety, says Jack McDevitt, a former Northeastern professor who has been studying hate crimes for 35 years.
“We’re seeing more kids involved in hate crimes—and feeling justified—because of the rhetoric they see on websites and on social media,” says McDevitt, who helped design the FBI’s system for collecting data and then traveled to more than 60 U.S. cities, helping train police departments across the nation to recognize and deal with hate crimes. “To think that the schools are immune to the messages all around us in society would be naive.”
McDevitt says there needs to be a greater emphasis on identifying students who need help before they reach for a gun to respond violently. Salvador Ramos, the 19-year-old student responsible for the attack in Uvalde, was a loner who had been bullied.
“We don’t want to demonize young people, because there are many, many more warning signs than there are school shooters,” McDevitt says. “But it’s also the case that in many school shootings, people did see signs that they didn’t act on. We don’t do a very good job of educating people about that.
“Now, there are some places where we do it really well: There are a lot more people willing to step up and say, “Don’t drive the car tonight because you’ve had too much to drink, I’ll give you a ride home,'” McDevitt adds. “But we don’t see people doing that in a situation where somebody might be threatening violence at school.”
Altogether, says McDevitt, there is a need for a focused approach to school shootings based on the data.
“Are we increasing the definition of what a school shooting is?” McDevitt asks.
Fox says his research found that an average of six students were killed annually in school shootings from 2010 through 2021. For perspective, he notes that 30 students die each year while commuting to and from schools.
Overall, the toll of shooting deaths (homicides, suices and gun accidents) throughout the U.S. reached 45,222 in 2020. Fox notes that school shootings account for a very small percentage of the 3,500 children and teens who are killed in U.S. shootings annually.
“These are terrible events,” Fox says of school shootings. “But it’s important to combat the hysteria. Because when there is hype and hysteria, we tend to do things that are ill-advised.”