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A suicide in a school. A bullet on campus. Are these “school shootings”?

There’s no neat definition, but they can leave scars.

Teachers From Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Return After School Shooting
Deerfield Beach high school students march to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after in support of the victims of the mass shooting on campus on February 23, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Somebody screamed, “Everybody get down.” Six, maybe eight, gunshots rang out.

Bridget Gawinowicz ducked into the nearest classroom, where the teacher locked the door, turned off the lights, and opened an umbrella. It was big, the kind you’d bring to the beach. He used it to cover the little window in the door. Inside the classroom, confusion and panic gave way to a sense of paralysis, a feeling that they couldn’t act even if they wanted to. It ended when a police officer came to the classroom and escorted them out.

At the time, Gawinowicz was a 16-year-old junior at a high school outside Philadelphia. Although she didn’t know it when she huddled in the classroom on that day in 2006, the only person shot was the gunman, a 16-year-old who killed himself in a school hallway. Her school, Springfield Township High School, never became a grim shorthand for death, like Sandy Hook Elementary or Virginia Tech or Columbine, or, after February 14, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

A suicide in a Pennsylvania school hallway doesn’t grab national attention the way those brutal, unthinkable massacres do. But Gawinowicz considers herself a school shooting survivor all the same — the victim of a less well-known trauma of gun violence in American schools.

After the Parkland shooting, a debate broke out about what counted as a “school shooting.” What happens if a shooter only fires into the parking lot? What about accidental shootings? What if, as in Gawinowicz’s case, the only death is a suicide?

Those examples demonstrate an undeniable truth: Guns go off in the United States a startling amount. Schools are not immune, but instead deeply entwined within this larger crisis. Some students, teachers, and administrators who’ve experienced these brushes with gunfire are relieved and thankful that the worst did not happen. But sometimes fear and anxiety linger long after.

Gawinowicz is still grappling with the 2006 shooting: “We are now in this weird, horrible club of shared experiences” of those who’ve experienced gun violence in school, she said. “And we didn’t even have classmates die. It’s weird to then put a gradient on the trauma — ‘Well, my school shooting wasn’t as bad as that school shooting.’”

When guns go off in American schools, are they all “school shootings”?

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, a startling figure circulated online: This was the 18th school shooting in 2018. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention advocacy group, compiled the data. It defines a school shooting as any time a gun fires or discharges inside or into a building or on a campus at a high school or college.

According to the group, there were nine school shootings in February, including Parkland. One was at a college, and seven were at high schools: A Georgia high school teacher barricaded himself inside a classroom and fired a bullet into a window. A high school student in Tacoma, Washington, accidentally fired a gun in a school bathroom, nearly hitting a classmate. A sheriff’s deputy in Florida shot himself responding to a false alarm about school gunfire.

A gun fell out of a student’s bag in New York and went off. A third-grader in Minnesota accidentally fired a school police officer’s gun. In Maryland, a 17-year-old was shot in his high school parking lot in the evening. And at a California middle school, a gun brought in by a 12-year-old went off in a classroom, injuring five students — one of them critically.

This broad definition of “school shooting” has come under scrutiny. The Washington Post, in the wake of Parkland, called the Everytown for Gun Safety data “flat wrong,” questioning the inclusion of some incidents on the list:

Just five of Everytown’s 18 school shootings listed for 2018 happened during school hours and resulted in any physical injury. Three others appeared to be intentional shootings but did not hurt anyone. Two more involved guns — one carried by a school police officer and the other by a licensed peace officer who ran a college club — that were unintentionally fired and, again, led to no injuries. At least seven of Everytown’s 18 shootings took place outside normal school hours.

The Post didn’t dispute the existence of what it called the “crisis” of gun violence. But, journalists John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich argued, not differentiating between these incidents makes it hard to identify the actual problem and come up with viable solutions.

No one would equate a stray bullet through a window or a parking lot brawl with the tragedies of Parkland or Sandy Hook. Those were so acute and shocking, they justifiably were lodged in our collective memory. Mass school shootings in schools — where four or more people are killed, excluding the gunman — remain incredibly rare, making up just one of every 20 to 30 mass murders each year, based on new research from Northeastern University.

Everytown defends its broader interpretation. “Every time a gun is discharged or bullets are fired on or onto school grounds, it shatters the sense of safety children should feel at school,” Ruhi Bengali, senior manager of legislative research for Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement to Vox. “It results in a death, an injury or trauma, at the least. We must refuse to accept shootings in schools as normal. Parents, teachers and children deserve safe spaces for children to learn.”

Nuance matters when tailoring support services and treatment and figuring out who might be affected, said Melissa Brymer, the director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

That doesn’t mean only the big, horrific events are traumatic.

Some incidents might not get the same media attention a mass shooting gets, Brymer said. “But we do need to make sure that we take them seriously, and that we support those that are impacted.”

Understanding a person’s trauma from any type of gun violence is difficult because it involves so many factors. Kids, especially those who experience a one-time traumatic event, often show themselves to be resilient, said James Garbarino, a professor of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. But preexisting vulnerabilities — a death in the family, for example — or repeat traumatic events can make it harder to recover. “That’s why if you say, ‘What’s the effect of even a single traumatic event?’ the best scientific answer is that ‘it depends,’” he said.

Garbarino suggests one lockdown or shooting incident would probably count as a single traumatic event. But if students are in an environment with repeated incidents, or one of intense fear, “then it begins to be a much more complex task to recover from it.”

Gawinowicz, who now works in Philadelphia in patient education and advocacy, said she sought therapy to cope with symptoms of PTSD and anxiety after the shooting. She said it felt like she and some of her classmates never recovered. “I absolutely started to hate school,” she said. “Absolutely hate it. I hated going there.”

“The worst part about it was a complete loss of innocence,” she added. “The complete loss of, ‘We’re in high school, and it’s fun and we can be silly.’ It was just gone.”

“It could have been a much worse thing”

Students and staff had different reactions when bullets were fired near or on their campuses, from relief and gratitude that no one was harmed to fear that a stray bullet might be a prequel to something worse.

A bullet shattered a window in the visual arts building of California State University in San Bernardino on the evening of January 10. The campus went on lockdown for five hours before classes resumed the following day.

Kristen Morrish, a 28-year-old studying business administration and marketing at San Bernardino, had already left for the day when she started getting messages that the campus was on lockdown because of an active shooter.

“The idea of that personally terrified me and I didn’t want to attend school the next day,” Morrish wrote in an email, “because my thoughts was that the potential shooter was just practicing for when the school would be busier the next day.”

Morrish said she went to school anyway. She is graduating this year and didn’t want her absence to affect her standing on the dean’s list. But the lockdown stuck with her, even though she only heard about it secondhand. “Every day that I’ve gone to campus since that incident,” she wrote, “I look into the mountains wondering if that potential shooter will come back.”

Six days earlier, on January 4, a bullet went through the window of the administrative offices at New Start High School in Seattle. Michael Sita, the school principal, was stepping out to a printer at about 1 pm when he heard a loud crack, like a firecracker. School officials didn’t realize what had happened until the campus supervisor discovered a bullet hole in the window. The bullet had blown through the glass, through the window covering, and into the back of a bookcase before it lodged in a binder.

Police and campus security responded in a matter of minutes, Sita said. The approximately 150-student school went into lockdown. After the all-clear, they dismissed students at the usual time. Crisis counselors were on site Friday morning, and by Monday, the normal school schedule had resumed.

“If that bullet unfortunately went one direction or another,” Sita said, “this would be a much different story.”

The shot fired through the window, which is still being investigated by the King County Sheriff’s Department, was included on Everytown’s list. It was seemingly random and unpredictable. It doesn’t fit a neat description.

“It’s difficult because you don’t want to minimize it,” Sita said. “It could have been a much worse thing. But it wasn’t, and we’re thankful and fortune for that. But we do take it seriously.”

Officials described another incident on Everytown’s list, a shooting in a parking lot at a Michigan high school during a basketball game resulting from an altercation, in a similar way. “We hope that we’re not trying to sensationalize this epidemic even more by lumping in things such what happened at Dearborn High, where you had a random, isolated incident that doesn’t fit the same motive or criteria as these other school shootings,” David Mustonen, director of communications for Dearborn Public Schools, told the Detroit Free Press.

There’s no such thing as an “isolated” school shooting

A suicide in a bathroom. A fight in a parking lot that leaves no one dead or injured. These are undeniably different from a mass shooting. But neither are they isolated incidents. They’re both part of a bigger gun violence problem in the United States.

America has the highest gun homicide rate of any developed country. Suicides account for the most gun deaths in the United States. These school shootings — even if they don’t look like the massacres that make national headlines — are inseparable from the larger crisis.

In the first seconds after a gun is fired, it’s usually not clear what’s happening — an accident, a suicide, a fight, a massacre. The student at Springfield Township in 2006, it was later reported, was an Eagle Scout, upset about his grades. He took his father’s rifle from a cabinet. The local prosecutor said he only planned to hurt himself: The hallways were full; it was between periods. His classmates would have been hard to miss.

But Gawinowicz didn’t know any of that in the moment. All she knew was students were scattering for cover. “I think in the moment I felt for sure I was going to die,” she said. “But I was not at all able to process that until long after it happened.”

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