DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This back-to-school season, gun violence is on the minds of so many educators and parents. The Federal School Safety Commission led by the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is holding its final public listening session today in Montgomery, Ala. This commission was formed in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead. And one question at the heart of the debate over school shootings is just how often they happen. Earlier this year for the first time, the federal government published what it said was a comprehensive count based on a survey of every single public school in the United States. But an NPR investigation has found that the actual number may be far lower than the government is reporting. Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team joins us now to talk about this. Hi, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Morning, David.
GREENE: All right. So let's start with the official number from the government that we're dealing with here.
KAMENETZ: Two hundred and thirty-five. The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights asked every school this question, and they actually made it mandatory for the first time last year. They asked, in the 2015-2016 school year, has there been at least one incident at your school that involved a shooting, whether - regardless of whether anyone was hurt? And that included going to and from school and school-sponsored events. And they published the answer this past spring.
GREENE: OK, so 235 in one school year - that's - what? - like, almost one for every school day. Am I right?
KAMENETZ: Right. So it seems really high to us. And so the NPR Ed team - this was some intern magic - spent the summer calling around to every single one of those schools. And David, we confirmed just 11 of the incidents.
GREENE: That's astonishing. I mean, that's not just, like, a mistake here or there.
KAMENETZ: Right. So we should say, you know, a quarter of the schools did not get back to us, it being the summer. But in 161 of those 235 cases, we did learn districts or schools told us nothing at all happened. And the biggest chunk of those overall was the Cleveland Municipal School District, reporting 37 shootings. Their best guess is that that number, 37, was placed on the wrong line of the survey.
GREENE: It's just incredible that you have schools saying nothing at all happened, and they're being counted by the federal government as places where there were shootings.
KAMENETZ: Right. So it's a really important question. And it's the first time that they've asked it. And we heard the same kind of errors all over the place. So in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, among 16 very affluent schools, four shootings are listed. And Gail Pinsker, a district spokeswoman, said no one remembers any guns being fired going back 20-plus years. But maybe, she says, there was a coding mistake.
GAIL PINSKER: There was a code that was selected for a student brandishing a pair of scissors.
KAMENETZ: And somehow that got inflated into a gun going off.
GREENE: That - OK, so maybe the school is just reporting that that an incident happened, and it gets counted by the federal government as a gun going off. But, I mean, mistakes happen, but this is - these are important mistakes.
KAMENETZ: Yeah. I mean - you know, so we partnered with Child Trends, a nonprofit, for this investigation. And Deborah Temkin, one of their program officers, said, you know, on the one hand, there's 96,000 public schools, and so this is really within the margin of error for a massive data collection. But on the other hand, she said...
DEBORAH TEMKIN: I think the challenge, of course, is when we're talking about such important and rare event like school shootings, that amount of data error could be very meaningful.
GREENE: OK, Anya, so what is the Department of Education saying about your investigation?
KAMENETZ: So Liz Hill, a department spokeswoman, said first of all, you know, they rely on schools to self-report and self-certify all of this data. They did say that at least five districts have contacted them and asked to revise their data submissions on the shootings. We know that some of those districts got in touch with the department after talking to us. The Education Department says they'll publish an update called an errata, but they do not plan to republish the original document, which of course has been out for several months now.
GREENE: Which makes me wonder, do we really know anything about the number of school shootings in this country?
KAMENETZ: Yeah, that's the question. I mean, I think the one thing we can say that's good news is that they are, by any measure, extremely rare. But I wish that we knew more. I mean, having - you know, having a kid going back to school myself and seeing, you know, active-shooter drills, seeing districts spending so much money on safety and all kind of focusing on this idea of shootings being something that is, you know, really common, I just wish that we had better information.
GREENE: Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team. Thanks a lot, Anya.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, David.
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