Exclusionary school discipline approaches not effective at preventing school violence

A new Government Accountability Office report examines school shooting data by type, location, time of day, school year and relationship of the shooter to the school community.
By: | July 21, 2020
Photo by Jose Alonso on UnsplashPhoto by Jose Alonso on Unsplash

School-related shootings that are the result of a dispute or grievance occur more often in schools in poor, urban settings that have a greater percentage of minority students. That’s according to a comprehensive report by the Government Accountability Office that examined K-12 school shooting data over a 10-year period.

Wealthier schools in suburban and rural settings with fewer minority students saw more gun-related suicides and shootings that targeted staff and students, which led to higher fatalities per incident during that same time period, according to the report.

The majority of school shootings result from disputes or grievances, such as conflicts between students or staff, or between gangs, the GAO found. The next most common type of shooting at school is accidental. The office focused its research on 318 school shootings that occurred between 2009-19 and resulted in 166 fatalities. Additionally, GAO staff did not find empirical research in the last 10 years that directly examines the link between approaches to school discipline—whether exclusionary or nonexclusionary—and school shootings specifically. The GAO has previously reported that exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, disproportionately affects boys, Black students, and students with disabilities.

“It is difficult to isolate the effect of any one variable in a school shooting, such as the role of school discipline, because multiple and complex factors affect an individual’s propensity toward violence, shootings have many types of shooters and many possible causes, and researchers have so few comparable cases to study,” the report states.

The GAO pointed to research that promotes the use of nonexclusionary approaches, such as positive behavior supports, trauma-informed practices, social and emotional learning, and restorative justice, to address problematic behavior. Those nonexclusionary practices do not eliminate the need for suspensions and expulsions, but may help reduce districts’ reliance on them, the GAO wrote.

Indeed, schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports provide effective schoolwide school violence prevention practices as well as evidence-based interventions that are responsive to student needs, said Jessica Dirsmith, a clinical assistant professor at Duquense University in Pittsburgh. “Grounded in decades of research, and shown to impact a number of important student-level and systems-level outcomes, including creating and maintaining safe and supportive schools, these practices aim to create safe environments by promoting positive change in student behavior,” Dirsmith says.

Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, director of policy and advocacy for the National Association of School Psychologists, says the GAO report supports the position that exclusionary discipline approaches are not effective at preventing school violence.

“We’re not saying never to suspend a student,” Strobach explains. “We’re saying it shouldn’t be the first step.”

The GAO report does not offer any recommendations but does thoroughly examine school shooting data by type, location, time of day, school year, and relationship of the shooter to the school community. No uniform definition of “school shooting” exists, so GAO researchers developed one: “Any time a gun is fired on school grounds, on a bus, during a school event, during school hours, or right before or after school.”

Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, K-12 Education: Characteristics of School Shootings (2020)

Types of K-12 school shootings, 2009-19

What the data shows about discipline and school shootings

Education and Labor Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Va., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., requested the report and asked the GAO to examine the relationship between school shootings and student discipline. In a statement, Scott said the report is the first government-mandated collection of data on school shootings.

In addition to analyzing data on school shootings and school characteristics from 2009-19, researchers conducted a literature review to identify empirical research from 2009 to 2019 that examined discipline approaches in school and their impact on school gun violence, school violence, or school safety. The GAO also interviewed selected researchers about the challenges and limitations of conducting research on school discipline and school shootings.

After the report’s release, Nadler and Scott said the findings show the Trump administration was unfounded in rescinding Obama-era guidance issued in 2014 to address racial disparities in school discipline practices. The Federal Commission on School Safety, created after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., recommended rescinding the Rethink Discipline guidance reported in Dear Colleague Letter, 8 GASLD 20 (OCR/DOJ 2014), saying the guidance may have contributed to making schools less safe.

The Federal Commission on School Safety also promoted the use of positive behavior supports, positive school climates, and student access to mental health services. Earlier this year, the federal government created SchoolSafety.gov to provide schools and districts recommendations and resources for creating safe and supportive learning environments.

Takeaways from GAO report

The GAO report found that school shootings most commonly result from disputes or grievances, such as conflicts between students or staff, or between gangs. The next most common type of shootings at school is the accidental shooting.

The research focused on 318 school shooting incidents from 2009-19. Here are key takeaways from the research, organized by topic:

  • Region. School shootings occurred nationwide in every state except West Virginia and Wyoming. Half of all school shootings over the past 10 years occurred in the South and the greatest number of school shootings occurred in Florida (24), Texas (24), and Georgia (23).
  • School level. Most school shootings occurred in high schools, where incidents were most often related to disputes and grievances, school-targeted shootings, and suicides. In middle schools, accidental shootings and shootings related to disputes and grievances were the most prevalent. In elementary schools, most shootings were accidental.
  • Location. Most (61 percent) of school shootings occurred outside the school building. When shootings occurred outside a school building, disputes and grievances were the most prevalent reasons. When shootings occurred inside school buildings, they were most commonly accidental. Shootings that occurred inside a school building were, on average, three times deadlier per incident than shootings that occurred outside the school building.
  • Shooter. Half of the school shootings were committed by a student or former student. The other half were committed by individuals with no relationship to the school or whose relationship was unknown. With school shootings that were accidental, a suicide, or school-targeted, the shooter was more often a student or former student. However, when the shooting was the result of a dispute or grievance, the shooter was a non-student in most cases.

Kara Arundel covers special education for LRP Publications, publisher of DA.