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credit: 99%invisible

Do you recall, gentle readers, the missing children on milk cartons craze of the early 1980s?  Wild numbers were bandied about; hundreds of thousands of American children were going “missing” every year!  Eventually, sanity was reestablished.  People began to realize that if those numbers were even remotely correct, virtually everyone would have been touched in some way, indirectly or directly, by such an immense wave of horror.  They weren’t.  Cooler heads prevailed, and milk cartons once again advertised their contents instead of stirring up false fears.

As regular readers know, I’ve been running an updated series on how to deal with school attacks, and will for some weeks to come.  I’ve been intending to run this article for some time, and the time seems ripe.  We are used to hearing all manner of hyperbole from the media, and anti-liberty/gun organizations, where school violence is concerned.  This is very much a two-edged sword for them.

Leftist-minded public schools are loath to admit any violence happens on their campuses, such violence tending to disprove their policy assumptions, which being propounded by leftists, simply cannot be wrong.  Yet in order to disarm the law-abiding, there simply must be an ever-increasing tidal wave of school attacks.

You may be as surprised as I to learn National Public Radio–NPR–just about as leftist a media outfit as one might imagine, has gone a long way toward undermining at least some leftist orthodoxy, in at least one report in August of 2018:

How many times per year does a gun go off in an American school?

We should know. But we don’t.

This spring the U.S. Education Department reported that in the 2015-2016 school year, ‘nearly 240 schools … reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting.’ The number is far higher than most other estimates.

One might think the Department of Education, to whatever degree one thinks it ought to exist at all, would take at least some pains to ensure the accuracy of such data.  One would be wrong.

But NPR reached out to every one of those schools repeatedly over the course of three months and found that more than two-thirds of these reported incidents never happened. Child Trends, a nonpartisan nonprofit research organization, assisted NPR in analyzing data from the government’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

We were able to confirm just 11 reported incidents, either directly with schools or through media reports.

In 161 cases, schools or districts attested that no incident took place or couldn’t confirm one. In at least four cases, we found, something did happen, but it didn’t meet the government’s parameters for a shooting. About a quarter of schools didn’t respond to our inquiries.

Ruger AR-556, a common AR-15 variant

But how can this be?!  We’ve been told attacks on schools, particularly by people armed with the weapon of mass destruction, the AR-15, are on the rise, in fact, they’re ubiquitous. Keep in mind I suspect at least some of this information was gathered during the Obama Administration, which might explain an apparent tendency toward conclusion first, research and data later.  It appears, however, that mere carelessness, even incompetence, is also involved.

The Education Department, asked for comment on our reporting, noted that it relies on school districts to provide accurate information in the survey responses and says it will update some of these data later this fall. But, officials added, the department has no plans to republish the existing publication.

The Civil Rights Data Collection for 2018 required every public school — more than 96,000 — to answer questions on a wide range of issues.

It asked what sounded like a simple question:

In the 2015-2016 school year, ‘Has there been at least one incident at your school that involved a shooting (regardless of whether anyone was hurt)?’

The answer — ‘nearly 240 schools (0.2 percent of all schools)’ — was published this spring.

The statistic “240 schools” sounds like a very great deal, until we realize it is substantially less than a single percent of schools, not that any attack on a school is acceptable.  NPR must, again, be commended for reaching rational conclusions:

The government’s definition included any discharge of a weapon at school-sponsored events or on school buses. Even so, that would be a rate of shootings, and a level of violence, much higher than anyone else had ever found.

For comparison, the Everytown for Gun Safety database, citing media reports, listed just 29 shootings at K-12 schools between mid-August 2015 and June 2016. There is little overlap between this list and the government’s, with only eight schools appearing on both.

separate investigation by the ACLU of Southern California also was able to confirm fewer than a dozen of the incidents in the government’s report, while 59 percent were confirmed errors.

In this case, the federal DOE was actually far more alarmist than even “Everytown,” and the ACLU of Southern California, organizations whose hostility toward the Second Amendment and law abiding firearm owners is a matter of record.  The school districts that supposed had huge numbers of incidents basically said “they said what?!” when contacted by NPR:

For example, the CRDC reports 26 shootings within the Ventura Unified School District in Southern California.

‘I think someone pushed the wrong button,’ said Jeff Davis, an assistant superintendent there. The outgoing superintendent, Joe Richards, ‘has been here for almost 30 years and he doesn’t remember any shooting,’ Davis added. ‘We are in this weird vortex of what’s on this screen and what reality is.’

Yes, gentle readers, the institutional memory of individual schools and school districts is such that any shooting would be remembered.

The biggest discrepancy in sheer numbers was the 37 incidents listed in the CRDC for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Roseann Canfora, the district’s chief communications officer, told us that, in fact, 37 schools reported ‘possession of a knife or a firearm,’ which is the previous question on the form.

The number 37, then, was apparently entered on the wrong line.

Ooops.  Thus were more than 15% of the supposed incidents wiped–rationally, not officially–from the record.

Similarly, the CRDC lists four shootings among the 16 schools of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California. Gail Pinsker, spokeswoman for the district, says that ‘going back 20-plus years,’ no one can remember any incident involving a firearm. Their best guess, she says, is that there was some kind of mistake in coding, where an incident involving something like a pair of scissors (California Education Code 48915[c][2]), for example, got inflated into one involving a firearm (48915[c][1]).

Regular readers also know I’ve written of school districts that have gone literally crazy, punishing students for posting photos of themselves families and friends enjoying the shooting sports on social media.  Students have been suspended form pointing guns made entirely of their fingers, and in one case, of holding a school lunchroom chicken finger that sort of, if one looked at it just right, kind of looked like a gun.

Ray Poole, the chief of legal services for the Nassau County School District in Florida, told us that at one school where a shooting was reported, Callahan Middle School, on Nov. 21, 2015, a Saturday, a student took a picture of himself at home holding a gun and posted it to social media. ‘We got wind of it and nipped it in the bud.’ No shooting.

Thank goodness the two-dimensional threat, which was nowhere near a school, was “nipped in the bud.”  So were similarly dangerous incidents:

The CRDC shows seven shootings in DeKalb County, Ga. Police reports provided to us by that district give a sense of more of the many, many ways the data collection may have gone wrong.

At Redan Middle School, there is a report of a toy cap gun fired on a school bus — not a shooting.

The CRDC shows a shooting at Stone Mountain Middle School, but a police report shows an incident at Stone Mountain High School instead.

And district officials provided a police report showing that there was a shooting after a McNair High School football game — in August 2016, after the time period covered in the survey.

NPR notes that some of the problem was inexact or confusing definitions in the federal survey forms.  Imagine that.  Another problem was asking for two data points for a single blank, such as asking if there has been bullying and the use of explosives, which could be anything from nuclear weapons to a firecracker.

 NPR submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to learn more about problems with the data collection, and we received emails that schools and districts sent as they grappled with this kind of confusion. For example, the Omro school district in Wisconsin wanted to know whether a consensual paintball-gun fight involving several students should be considered an ‘attack with a weapon’ or a ‘possession of a firearm.’

NPR also notes the survey was new, and thus, unfamiliar to the schools required to respond to its confusing definitions and categories.

And there’s another factor at work as well: the law of really, really big numbers. Temkin notes that ‘240 schools is less than half of 1 percent,’ of the schools in the survey.'”It’s in the margin of error.’

So it is, but that sort of thing is seldom, if ever, reported.

Liz Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman, told NPR that ‘at least five districts have submitted requests to OCR to amend the school-related shootings data that they submitted for the 2015-16 CRDC.’ The plan is to issue what is called “errata” to update the data, but the original document will not be republished, Hill said.

Hill made the point that any ‘misreporting’ is the schools’ responsibility, not the department’s: ‘As always, data reported by recipients is self-reported and self-certified.’

Translation: we know the information is fake, but we’re going to blame someone else and pretend it’s not anyway.  What a surprise government would behave this way:

After we contacted the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified district about the four reported shootings, the district emailed the Office for Civil Rights to try to correct the information. No shootings happened, officials said.

The Office for Civil Rights responded on July 25:

‘The CRDC accepts correction requests for up to one year from the moment the submission period opens. For the 2015-16 collection, the corrections period closed on June 30, 2018, and for this reason your data correction request cannot be accepted. However, a data note will be included on the data file to ensure users are aware of the errors you are reporting.’

As I’ve noted in the companion series on school shootings (enter “school attacks 2019” in the SMM homepage search bar to find every article) the good news is that school attacks are not increasing in number and are not nearly as common as hysterical new coverage would lead us to believe.  The bad news is there is, for all but a handful of American schools, nothing preventing one.  Many school officials might read the NPR report and conclude they need do nothing effective to protect their schools.  In so doing, they’re tacitly accepting some number of injured and dead if a school attack happens.  Fires are rare, but we buy fire extinguishers.

As Mark Twain said:

There are lies, damned lies and statistics.

Aztec High School

Hats off to NPR for taking the time to do what the Lamestream Media would never do, even though that research was pretty much out of character, and I’m certain gave indigestion to not a few NPR staffers and on-air personalities.  The “school attacks are everywhere,” and “guns bad” narratives are just too good to check.  The clear lesson here, particularly where firearms are involved, but certainly not exclusively, is to take whatever the media says with reasonable skepticism.  Sadly, these days “reasonable skepticism” is to disbelieve them until one can independently confirm their “too good to check” assertions.

Every year I teach Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” the brilliant play about the Salem Witch Trials. We would like to believe we’ve advanced beyond a tendency to public hysteria based on little or logically contradictory evidence.  Sadly, we’ll never advance beyond human nature, which operates in schools as well as everywhere else.

I hope to see you here tomorrow, Tuesday, for the continuing School Attacks 2019 series.