When Do School Shootings Occur?

Last [month] we had another school shooting.  When I read that the West Liberty High School shooter chose to initiate his attack before classes officially began for the day, it got me thinking.  It seemed that a lot of recent school attacks have been happening not during the school day, but rather before or after school.  When I linked to the story about the shooting on my Facebook page, I casually commented that I was noticing a lot of shootings before school actually began.

That comment generated an email from the brilliant LouAnn Hamblin of Louka Tactical.  LouAnn wanted to know if I had seen any hardcore data on the topic of the timing of school shootings.  I have not seen any studies, so I decided to take a look at things on my own.

I went to Wikipedia’s constantly updated list of school shootings in the United States.  As I wanted to look at the most recent trends, I analyzed the reported shootings from the three-year period ending December 31, 2016.  Over that three-year period, there were 71 school shootings listed.

As I was primarily interested in elementary school and secondary school shootings, I excluded the shootings that occurred on college campuses.  That left me with 47 shootings to look at.

Of those 47 shootings, the majority were incidents that consisted of fights between two individuals where one suspect shot another.  They weren’t random shootings with multiple victims.  I excluded all the incidents of individual combat and was left with 16 school shootings to analyze.

Of the 16 remaining school shootings, 10 happened after school, four happened during school hours, and two happened before classes began.  Nine of the 10 after-school shootings were gang related and many were drive by shootings by gang members that occurred after sporting events let out.   I wasn’t interested in those shootings either.

When I excluded the gang retaliation shootings and drive-byes, that left me with a grand total of seven school shootings where multiple victims were randomly shot by a single suspect.  That number honestly surprised me.  Seven mass school shootings over a three year period in a nation of over 300 million people is actually a lot fewer than I expected.

Looking at the seven mass school shootings that fit a traditional definition of an active killer attack, we see that four attacks occurred during school hours, one was after school (during a prom), and two happened before school hours.

So, three of the seven (43%) shootings occurred outside of the time period of normal school hours.  That’s actually a big percentage.  Why is that number important?

No schools practice lockdown/escape drills at that time. Staff isn’t all present. Students aren’t in their classrooms. People are hanging out in hallways. An organized lockdown is very difficult at this time. That’s why shooters pick this time to attack. Schools need to practice drills before classes (and after classes) to be fully prepared.

Let’s take a deeper look into these eight school shootings.

  • An Oregon school shooting happened when students were walking to their first period class (before school).
  • A New Mexico school shooting happened before school as well
  • The after-school shooting happened in Wisconsin.  A student set up with a rifle in the school parking lot and shot students leaving the high school prom.
  • An eighth grader shot students during a school lunch period.
  • A 15-year old shot five students during a school lunch period.
  • A South Carolina teen targeted elementary school children playing on a playground during recess.
  • A Student fired five shots during a scheduled high school fire drill.

What can we learn from these shootings?

The most obvious fact is that NONE of the shootings took place in a classroom during school hours!  Some of the attacks happened outside of school hours.  Of the attacks that occurred during the school day, ALL happened in locations other than classrooms.  Two shootings happened during school lunch periods.  One was during a fire drill.  The other happened during an elementary school recess.

I think that tells us that school security measures are working.  Kids know that they will be caught if they carry guns into the school, especially into the classroom.  They depend on the natural chaos that occurs during lunch periods or fire drills to mask their intentions to kill other students.

The problem is that schools are preparing for the last threat.  They are training to lock down classrooms in response to a school shooting.  But the classrooms aren’t where the shooters are operating!  Schools need to take the next step to secure their “public” areas (like lunch rooms) and train to respond to attacks either before or after school hours.

Talk to your kids’ school administrators. Ask them what plans they have in place for an attack before classes begin. Ask them how they would keep a large lunch room full of students safe from an active killer.   Don’t be surprised if they don’t have an acceptable answer.  Encourage them to expand their policies and training drills.

Greg Ellifritz is the full time firearms and defensive tactics training officer for a central Ohio police department. He holds instructor or master instructor certifications in more than 75 different weapon systems, defensive tactics programs and police specialty areas. Greg has a master's degree in Public Policy and Management and is an instructor for both the Ohio Peace Officer's Training Academy and the Tactical Defense Institute.

For more information or to contact Greg, visit his training site at Active Response Training.

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