Expert Commentary

How school shootings hurt student achievement and enrollment

In this updated collection of research, scholars find that student achievement falls after school shootings and enrollment drops as some families leave the area.

Vigil for shooting victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Vigil for school shooting victims in Parkland, Florida (Fabrice Florin/Flickr)

This collection of research on U.S. school shootings, originally published in February 2018, has been updated with new data and resources plus summaries of two new papers on how school shootings affect student achievement and campus enrollment.  

Nine people died and another 48 have been injured in school shootings across the U.S. this year, according to Education Week’s 2021 School Shooting Tracker. It shows that the Nov. 30 shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan is the deadliest since May 2018, when police say a Texas student armed with a revolver and a shotgun killed eight students and two teachers at a high school near Houston.

As journalists rush to collect facts, they try to put these events into context, focusing, for example, on questions about local gun policies and how the communities involved are grappling with the sudden deaths of children, teachers and athletic coaches.

Long after news crews leave, though, those who witnessed these tragedies will bear their consequences. Extensive research suggests that exposure to violence can hurt children’s health and well-being for years into the future. It also can desensitize them — violence, in their eyes, becomes an acceptable way to handle problems, researchers explain.

Below, we’ve pulled together research that looks at other consequences that might seem less obvious to reporters covering the issue. These studies offer insights into how student performance and enrollment can fall following a shooting on campus.

We also included resources aimed at helping journalists improve their coverage of school shootings, including tips on interviewing children and an explainer on firearm technology and vocabulary.
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The Effects of Campus Shooting on School Finance and Student Composition: From George Washington University and Pennsylvania State University, published in Education Finance and Policy, 2021. By Lang “Kate” Yang and Maithreyi Gopalan.

This 44-page paper, based on an analysis of all shootings at U.S. public schools between 1999 and 2018, provides “the first causal estimates of campus shootings on [school] district finance, staffing, and student composition on a national scale,” the researchers write.

The main takeaways:

  • School shootings are associated with increased spending of $248 per pupil, on average. Schools spend this money primarily on capital projects such as building repairs and security upgrades and on student support services such as mental health and psychological services.
  • The average number of teachers per 100 students remains unchanged, confirming prior research indicating “shootings do not lead to a crowd-out of instructional resources.” The number of guidance counselors rises temporarily, during the first year or two after a shooting.
  • Student enrollment at local public and private schools drops after a school shooting as higher-income families leave the area. The researchers note that the resulting shift in student demographics “could exacerbate existing disparities across schools and intensify socioeconomic segregation.”

Trauma at School: The Impacts of Shootings on Students’ Human Capital and Economic Outcomes: From the University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University and Northwestern University, a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, 2021. By Marika Cabral, Bokyung Kim, Maya Rossin-Slater, Molly Schnell and Hannes Schwandt.

Researchers studied public school shootings in Texas to gauge their impact on students’ education and future job earnings. They focus on the 33 shootings that took place on school grounds during school hours between the 1995-1996 and 2015-2016 academic years. The resulting paper offers “the first comprehensive analysis of the short- and long-run impacts of an increasingly common source of exposure to violence among children: shootings at schools.”

The analysis suggests:

  • Children who attend public schools where a shooting occurred are, on average, 1.8 percentage points more likely to be chronically absent than kids at similar schools that have had no shootings. Students exposed to school shootings are 1.3 percentage points more likely to repeat a grade, on average.
  • High school sophomores and juniors at schools where shootings took place are 2.9 percentage points less likely to graduate high school when compared with students in the same grades who attend similar schools without shootings. They’re also 5.5 percentage points less likely to enroll in a four-year college, on average.
  • Students exposed to a school shooting in grades 9 through 11 are 4.4 percentage points less likely to have jobs when they reach age 24 to 26, and their average annual earnings are $2,779.84 lower. “This estimate,” the researchers write, “implies a $115,550 reduction in the present discounted value of lifetime earnings per shooting-exposed student.”

The Relationships Between Violence in Childhood and Educational Outcomes: A Global Systematic Review and Meta-analysis: From the University of Edinburgh, China Agricultural University, Georgia State University and the Centre for Population Health Sciences, published in Child Abuse & Neglect, 2018. By Deborah Fry, Xiangming Fang, Stuart Elliott, Tabitha Casey, Xiaodong Zheng, Jiaoyuan Li, Lani Florian and Gillean McCluskey.

This research article examines dozens of studies from 21 countries to understand the relationship between different types of violence in childhood and a range of education-related outcomes such as academic performance, absenteeism and graduation and dropout rates. The study finds that all types of childhood violence have an impact. For example, children who experience physical violence are 20 percent less likely to graduate. Children who experience any type of violence are less likely to earn high grades and test scores.

The Effect of Community Traumatic Events on Student Achievement: Evidence from the Beltway Sniper Attacks: From American University, published in Education Finance and Policy, May 2017. By Seth Gershenson and Erdal Tekin.

This study looks at how traumatic events such as mass shootings affect the performance of students living in the community where the events occurred. Gershenson and Tekin focused specifically on how elementary school students in Virginia performed on standardized tests after the “Beltway Sniper” attacks of 2002. “The main results indicate that the attacks significantly reduced school-level proficiency rates in schools within five miles of an attack. Evidence of a causal effect is most robust for math proficiency rates in the third and fifth grades, and third grade reading proficiency, suggesting that the shootings caused a decline in school proficiency rates of about 2 to 5 percent. Particularly concerning from an equity standpoint, these effects appear to be entirely driven by achievement declines in schools that serve higher proportions of racial minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged students.”

The Effect of High School Shootings on Schools and Student Performance: From Louisiana State University and University of Missouri, published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, March 2016. By Louis-Philippe Beland and Dongwoo Kim.

This study suggests that high schools where fatal shootings have occurred experience a 5.8 percent drop in freshmen enrollment, on average, following the event. The researchers also examined standardized test scores in California and found that scores in math and English declined for students who remain enrolled after the shooting. Beland and Kim did not find statistically significant impacts on graduation or suspension rates or student attendance.

School Shootings and Private School Enrollment: From the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, published in Economics Letters, February 2013. By Rahi Abouk and Scott Adams.

This study finds that school shootings increase enrollment at private high schools, particularly in suburban and rural areas. The researchers looked at enrollment at public and private high schools nationwide between 1998 and 2009 and matched that data with school shooting reports. Private school enrollments increased an estimated 9.7-11.6 percent in the academic year immediately following a shooting. Meanwhile, public school enrollment fell an estimated 0.4-1.3 percent. “Parents overestimate the potential for such events to be repeated, particularly those that occur in suburban and rural areas, because of intense media coverage,” the authors write.

Other resources:

Photo by Fabrice Florin obtained from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.