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Feb. 11, 2021, 11:05 a.m. EST

Students exposed to school shootings suffer lasting health and educational problems

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By Phillip Levine, and Robin McKnight

The issue:

Over the past two decades, 143 American public schools have experienced shootings during school hours that resulted in at least one fatality. More than 300 people have died in these incidents. This loss of life is a national tragedy.

And there is growing evidence that the impact of these incidents reaches far beyond the direct victims and their immediate families. Over 180,000 students attended schools where these shootings occurred. Each of these students suffered trauma that could generate lifelong consequences.

The facts:

While media attention tends to focus on high-victimization, indiscriminate school shootings—such as those that occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado or Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.—many other school shootings have also taken place over the past 20 years under a variety of different circumstances.  Between 1995 and 2019, 302 people have died in 176 shooting incidents that occurred in public schools during school hours and caused at least one death.

Suicides are the most common type of school shooting, which means that more students are exposed to them. Indiscriminate shootings lead to the most fatalities, but they are less common. Other types of school shootings include personally targeted attacks, where the shooting is directed at a particular individual, and shootings that are related to criminal activity, such as robberies or drug sales.

Schools that experience shootings have similar characteristics, on average, to a typical public school, but different types of shootings tend to affect different types of schools.  Urban schools are more likely to experience personal attacks and crime-related shootings, while rural schools are more likely to experience suicides and indiscriminate shootings. Suicides and indiscriminate shootings tend to occur in regions with higher gun sales rates and less restrictive gun laws, while crime-related shootings tend to occur in locations with more restrictive gun laws (see  here ). 

Also read: 8 years after Sandy Hook massacre, victims remembered in online vigil

Students exposed to a school shooting suffer adverse educational outcomes.  These impacts are especially salient in school districts that have experienced indiscriminate shootings with more than one fatality. In  our recent analysis , we find that test scores in both math and English fell substantially, both at Sandy Hook and at the other schools in Sandy Hook’s district in the years following the 2012 attack. Math scores, in particular, fell by roughly 30 percentile points.

But, the finding of measurable negative impacts on educational performance from school shootings is not limited to mass-fatality events.  Recent research , conducted by Marika Cabral, Bokyung Kim, Maya Rossin-Slater, Molly Schnell and Hannes Schwandt, shows that lower fatality school shootings also have a substantive negative impact on educational attainment. Their analysis of shootings in Texas public schools between 1995 and 2016 (none of which resulted in more than one fatality) shows that exposure to a school shooting increased grade repetition and reduced graduation rates. 

School shootings also cause increased school absenteeism.  In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting, we find that chronic absenteeism (missing more than 10% of school days) rose by 3 percentage points at Sandy Hook Elementary School and by 1 percentage point at other elementary schools in the district. Cabral and co-authors also find increases in overall absence rates as well as in chronic absenteeism after the lower-victimization school shooting incidents that they study in Texas.

Evidence suggests there are negative health consequences associated with all types of school shootings.  According to  research  by Maya Rossin-Slater, Molly Schnell, Hannes Schwandt, Sam Trejo and Lindsey Uniat, antidepressant prescriptions for young adults in the vicinity of school shootings tend to rise after they occur.

It may take many years to definitively determine the long-term health impacts of these events. However, we find evidence of a long-term increase in mortality rates, particularly suicides and accidental deaths (including accidental poisonings, such as overdoses) among boys, for students who were exposed to the Columbine High School shooting.

School shootings generate substantial financial costs for the school districts where they occur.  Following a shooting, schools often increase their investment in support services for students and overall school security.

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