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Social media spurs action, but school shootings 'not a raging epidemic,' expert says

FILE - Protesters with the "March for Our Lives" gather on the steps of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 24, 2018.
FILE - Protesters with the "March for Our Lives" gather on the steps of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 24, 2018.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Social media galvanized students nationwide after the Feb. 14 Parkland school massacre that killed 17 people. Hundreds of thousands of youths took to the streets for the "March for Our Lives" event on Saturday, calling for action over the "looming threat of gun violence in schools."

While mass shootings tend to get a lot attention because of media coverage and social media, violent deaths in schools have dropped significantly since the 1990s, according to experts and national data.

"I don't want minimize the pain and suffering of families and communities but it's certainly not a raging epidemic," said James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Boston's Northeastern University.

James Alan Fox and Emma E. Fridel, “The Three R’s of School Shootings: Risk, Readiness, and Response.”
James Alan Fox and Emma E. Fridel, “The Three R’s of School Shootings: Risk, Readiness, and Response.”
Aaron Thorup

On average, mass murders occur between 20 and 30 times per year and about one of those incidents takes place at a school, according to soon-to-be published research conducted by Fox and doctoral student Emma Fridel.

There are about 55 million school-age children in the United States. Over the past 25 years, on average, about 10 students per year were killed by gunfire at school, their research found.

"There is a tremendous amount of hysteria associated with school shootings. Some kids have called this 'the mass shooting generation.' It's excessive, frankly," Fox said.

According to a 2016 report by federal Department of Education and Department of Justice researchers, the vast majority of homicide deaths of youths take place outside of schools.

Over a 25-year window starting in the early 1990s, the percentage of youth homicides occurring at school remained at less than 3 percent of the total, according to the report Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2016.

Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2016, U.S. Department of Communication/U.S. Department of Justice.
Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2016, U.S. Department of Communication/U.S. Department of Justice.
Aaron Thorup

"Violent deaths at schools are rare but tragic events with far-reaching effects on the school population and surrounding community," the report states.

Rates of violent deaths of youths have dropped overall since the 1990s, in part due to a crackdown on gang violence but also a decrease of school violence.

According to Fox, four times as many students died as a result of school violence in the 1990s, he said.

In 1997 alone, there were six school shootings, two of the more high profiles cases in Pearl, Mississippi and West Paducah, Kentucky.

"What's changed is the nature of the media," Fox said.

Cable television news networks didn't offer round-the-clock coverage of traumatic events that is commonplace today. Many people first learned of school shootings from newspaper reports.

Now, news coverage is more immediate as people turn to websites and social media for information. Images of students walking out of schools with their hands over their heads are common. Some students record the sounds of gunshots on their cellphones or they reach out on social media as tragic events unfold.

"People believe what they see. They believe this is an epidemic because they see it on television. Now, of course, we're very much attuned to it," he said.

Gun control measures could help curb mass shootings but it's a heavy lift politically, said Fox, who twice participated in groups impaneled by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the wake of school shootings.

In the case of the Bush's conference, the discussion deliberately steered away from gun control and instead focused on character education, he said.

"We value personal freedoms. Unfortunately, these episodes are one of the prices we pay for the freedoms we enjoy," Fox said.

Movement and anxiety

The long-term impacts of social media are not fully understood, but it clearly played a pivotal role in organizing and staging the recent nationwide school walkout to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting as well as Saturday's marches, said Avery Holton, assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah.

"This is one of first times that social media has really been used more effectively by a younger generation specifically in the U.S. to come together. But on the negative side, there’s also a trap of emotion and concern and anxiety that can happen," he said.

While social media creates connection that can help people shoulder burdens or share concerns, it can also create an "echo chamber," Holton said.

"Let's say you're a high school student and something happens that affects you or other high school students like a mass shooting. Suddenly that fills up your feed because most of your friends are high school students and that's what you start to see over and over again. It leads you to believe, one, that maybe this is happening everywhere or maybe this is something I should be more concerned about; and two, it affects your emotional state," he said.

If the social media posts are sad, a youth might experience sadness. If the posts are "anger-fueled," they may experience anger, he said.

"So you start to really experience those things but it is an echo chamber, it is a contagion effect. If you don't break out of that, you're not able or see other things are in fact happening, that other people are doing other things. You share the emotion of other people even if you didn't expect to share that. We're starting to see that across platforms now," Holton said.

But on the other hand, the social-media fueled school walkout and the "March for Our Lives," are likely springboards for other meaningful acts of civic responsibility such as registering to vote and showing up to the polls.

"As someone who interacts with students or younger people on a daily basis, it seems like there is connectivity and a will to move the needle to action," Holton said.

Utah school safety

The safety of students and school employees is a top priority for Utah educators, says Terry Shoemaker, former superintendent of the Wasatch School District.

Sometimes it's the worry of a school activity bus returning from a basketball game during a snowstorm, an earthquake or an intruder gaining entry to a school. The list goes on and on, he said.

In March 2008, Shoemaker oversaw the evacuation of 10 buildings in the face of a threat from a caller who said a bomb would go off at one of the district's schools at 2 p.m.

No bomb was found after dogs searched 10 buildings, including a high school, two middle schools, four elementary schools, the district office building and a bus garage.

Shoemaker, who has the dual roles of executive director of the Utah School Superintendent Association and associate executive director of the Utah School Boards Association, said safety is a core mission of schools.

"Please understand that there is no issue of greater importance to local school boards than the safety of their youth and their kids. There is absolutely nothing more important. Lots of time is spent on it. Lots of money is spent on it," said Shoemaker while addressing the Utah State Board of Education recently.

Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District, said the district is sensitive to recent events, but "it is clear that schools are still the safest place for our students to be.

"Our facilities are more secure than ever and we continue to see improved designs and renovations to make them even safer. We have better communication mechanisms for students to report unsafe behavior, and improved interventions to address safety issues. School resource officer coverage has increased and their training has been enhanced. School has never been safer."

Canyons School District has devoted significant resources into school building design or retrofits that employ vestibule doors that limit access and surveillance cameras are strategically placed in schools. Sixteen armed, Peace Officer Standards and Training-certified school resource officers provide an additional layer of protection, said district spokesman Jeff Haney.

"It's important to have these type of security measures while also striking the balance of making them safe and welcoming buildings," he said.

Canyons officials are "incredibly encouraged" that statistically speaking, public schools nationwide are safe spaces for students and school employees. The district is working hard to communicate that message to school communities, he said.

"Just because we have a history of 'not here' doesn't mean it couldn't happen here. And I think that's why we're hearing from so many parents and teachers, and even students as we saw with this recent demonstration about their concerns. They're asking what we're doing to be prepared in case it happens here," he said.

School safety isn't just a matter of brick-and-mortar security measures or emergency drills, he said. Keeping schools safe is also a matter of creating positive school climates.

"It's not just the security measures, it's also changing the culture of schools so that students feel like they have a place, that they feel welcome and that they're an important part of the school community," Haney said.