Researchers at Northwestern University tracking school violence rates over the past 20-plus years have discovered a surprising common thread: the economy.
Analysis of a quarter-century’s worth of school shooting data has revealed that when rates of unemployment and economic distress go up, so too does the frequency of gun violence within schools, according to a new report published this week.
“Even when we tried to control for things that would seem to be more common-sense – like the number of students or the gun ownership rate – it doesn’t really change that the unemployment rate was always what was sticking out,” said Adam Pah, a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern who helped author the report.
In the new study, titled “Economic insecurity and the rise in gun violence at U.S. schools,” researchers looked at nearly 400 school shooting incidents that occurred across the country from 1990 to 2013.
The study found a significant relationship between increased unemployment and decreased time between school shootings. Months that saw a higher mean unemployment rate also saw more total attacks, on average. These findings were seen across national, regional and even local levels, according to Pah.
The study began as a way for Pah to find out what was behind a seemingly high number of school shootings at the beginning of last year. He began working with colleagues at Northwestern to pull together every data set they could on school shootings before vetting each event and distilling those into a single resource.
Pah was surprised when the results eventually pointed to the economy as a significant factor behind the frequency of these attacks.
“That’s not what I thought going in," he said. "I didn’t believe that that’s what we were aiming to see, but that’s what made sense. And it was kind of like this light went on.”
Researchers isolated two periods of increased school shootings – 1992-94 and 2007-13. More than half of the total incidents included in the report happened between those time periods.
The more recent increase is linked to a jump in shootings in post-secondary settings, according to John Hagan, a Northwestern professor and sociologist who also worked on the report. He believes that's happened as college degrees have become more vital to finding a well-paying job.
“There’s a lot of reason to think you would find consistency in this particular linkage between school and work because it is so central to our society and our ideas about upward mobility, economic success and the emphasis we place on that in our society," he said. "So it makes a lot of sense you might actually see this connection be stronger, more stable and consistent in schools than you would more generally in terms of crime in society.”
The study focused solely on incidents that had occurred on school grounds – either a K-12 school or a college or university – with a firearm being discharged, and involving students or school employees as either perpetrators or victims.
Ten such incidents occurred within Chicago during that period, claiming a total of six lives. The most recent happened in January 2013, when a 17-year-old boy was killed following a fight during a basketball game at Chicago State University.
Chicago was among six cities with the most recorded incidents over the study’s timeline, but Pah says schools here aren’t any more dangerous than in other large cities.
Researchers also found that most shootings are targeted incidents – with a shooter seeking out and intending to harm a specific person – while gang-related violence makes up just a small fraction (6.6 percent) of all incidents.
Despite the findings, Pah said unemployment rates are not the sole contributor to school violence.
“What I like to point out is what we found is why it goes up and down, not why it exists,” he said. “Some periods it’s higher, some periods it’s lower – it’s not that if unemployment went away we’re saying gun violence would go away at schools.”
Other root causes behind these incidents, though, can be difficult to tease out. Pah and Hagan both believe a way to limit the overall number of these shootings is by increasing economic opportunities for students – whether that's through mentorships, internships or improved employment counseling within schools.
Public and private funders have spent millions of dollars in recent years expanding the One Summer program, which last year offered 30,000 summer jobs and internship opportunities to teens across Chicago.
But when the economy struggles, funding for that type of program has often been first on the chopping block.
“Programs like that have a really significant impact,” Pah said. “When we’re talking about what should get cut when times get tough, it’s not those.”
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