RPM Special Edition on School Violence:
Introduction: Methods and Definitions

Last Updated: March 27, 2013

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Special Edition on School Violence

In this special report on school violence, the Rural Trust brings a rural perspective to the issue of violence in American schools. We hope this report aids the ongoing efforts of school administrators, teachers, and communities to put both students and adults in safe and supportive learning environments. We also hope that it will provide useful insight for the difficult policy work that lies ahead as the United States grapples with ongoing issues of violence and public safety. And, we hope it adds to the call for more research on the nature of violence, especially in schools and as it relates to children and youth.

For this report we compiled and reviewed some 700 media and newspaper accounts of specific incidents of school violence in which someone died or a mass threat was intended. We relied on media accounts for two reasons:

  • As is now well publicized, the United States tracks relatively little data on violence, especially gun violence. The kinds of information we sought were not readily available in easy-to-access formats for the time period we wanted to follow.
  • We wanted to explore overall themes in school violence and to gain the kind of insights that come from the particulars of specific events and from the relationships and patterns of those particulars across events.

We found, however, that tracking and sourcing media reports of school violence incidents was more vexing that we had anticipated. There were many more incidents than we had imagined. Leads turned up in unexpected places. We would begin to follow one incident and find another, often in the same school or in a school nearby. We found ourselves facing two challenges. The first was defining what we meant by school violence. The second was determining how to find incidents and organize them in manageable and meaningful ways.

What is school violence?

There is no single definition of school violence. Some descriptions include everything from a scratch with a paper clip to a mass event with many deaths. Some include verbal abuse like taunting; some include social behaviors like ostracizing and cyber-bullying.

These broad descriptions point to the fraught nature of violence itself. One person’s tease is another person’s taunt. Where does one draw the line in the gray area between a simple playground scuffle and a serious and dangerous beating?

Because of the complex nature of violence and the sheer number of incidents, we decided to focus this investigation on the most serious incidents, those in which a violent death occurred or in which multiple people were injured or targeted. (See “Definitions,” below.)

However, even using death as a concrete measure of school violence raised confounding questions in terms of what we mean by “school violence.” For example, the federal Indicators of School Crime series, which began after the 1997–98 school year, includes all events in which someone dies violently or a body is found on school property. This means that after-hours adult-on-adult domestic or employee violence is included. So is weekend neighborhood violence that erupts on a playground and late-night police chases that end in a school parking lot. But are these types of incidents actually “school violence” if they have nothing to do with students or with school policy?

Another confounding issue was how to address violent deaths that occurred while students were commuting to school, particularly when they were walking, taking public transportation, or riding in a private vehicle.

These questions illustrate the importance of a nuanced look at how violence occurs in schools and how it is reported and perceived.

Finding and organizing incidents included in our review

In order to find incidents of school violence, we relied on multiple sources including newspaper reports, online listings of school violence events from a variety of sources, reports produced by school security organizations, and public data sources. (See “Sources” on page 21 for a partial listing of the most frequently used sources of leads on school violence incidents.)

We included those events in which there was at least one death or a mass threat occurred on campus, at a school event, or while students were commuting to or from school or school events.


We divided incidents into the following categories:

Mass Violence Events: Includes all incidents in which a) there were three or more victims (deaths and/or injuries); or b) the event was random (rather than targeted to a specific person), had the potential or intent to inflict serious physical harm or death on multiple victims, and injured at least one person. Unless a perpetrator also killed or injured random victims, we included murder/suicides that were related to romantic interests (current, former, unrequited) in the Single Event category.

While this definition is fairly specific, there were still challenges in categorizing some incidents. See “Scale and Intent” on page 20 for more discussion of how we placed specific incidents.

Single Events: Includes suicides and homicides with one or two victims that occurred during the school day or at a school event. These are further sorted into one of the following sub-categories:

  • On-Campus Events occurred on campus (including in school parking lots), in school buses and at bus stops, or at school events, during regular school hours, including opening and dismissal.
  • Off-Campus Travel Events occurred while students were walking or traveling by means other than a school bus to or from school or a school event.

Threatened Mass Violence Events: Includes events in which a credible threat of Mass Violence was thwarted. We defined “credible” to include both a plan and the means to carry out the plan. To meet our definition, a credible Threatened Mass Violence event had some combination of the following: explosives, multiple weapons, ammunition, a detailed plan to execute the act, or an annotated school floor plan. We did not include events in which individuals were accused of making oral threats, having “hit lists,” or posting threats on the internet unless there was evidence the person was putting together a plan and/or taking action to acquire the means to carry out the threat. Threatened Mass Violence events are further sorted into one of two sub-categories:

  • Events that were discovered before they could be implemented.
  • Events that were attempted but produced no injuries, usually because weapons or explosives failed, assailants were tackled or talked down before acting, or assailants shot away from people — usually into the air or ceiling.

Hostage Events: Hostage-taking is a fairly common part of a variety of school violence events. We counted hostage events as separate incidents when there were no injuries or deaths.

Accidental Gun Discharges: Includes all accidental discharges of firearms, with or without injury. Accidental discharges that result in death are included as Single Event deaths.

Scale and intent in the definitions

The primary factors in deciding whether to categorize an incident as a Mass Violence or Single event were scale and intent. By scale we mean how many victims the incident claimed. By intent we mean whether the assailant targeted a specific individual or multiple random victims.

For example, in the 2012–13 school year we included two incidents under the category of Mass Violence: Newtown, Connecticut (Sandy Hook Elementary) and Baltimore, Maryland (Perry Hall High School). In the case of Perry Hall, newspaper accounts suggest the assailant fired randomly in the school cafeteria, injuring one victim before being subdued. In this case the assailant apparently intended and had the potential to claim multiple victims. By contrast, we did not include shootings at Taft Union High School in California or at Price Middle School in Atlanta. In each of these incidents, newspaper reports indicated that the assailants targeted specific individuals. In both cases the targeted victims have survived the attack; therefore, they are not listed in the count of fatalities for the school year.

Unknown assailants

In about 10% of incidents, no assailant had been identified or no information about suspects was given in the account. In many cases the victim was caught in crossfire or hit by a stray bullet. There were some incidents in which intent was not clear. This was particularly true with hit-and-run or drive-by shootings, where it was often not possible to know whether the victim was a random killing, misidentified, targeted personally, or caught in a some other kind of action. In these cases we placed the event in the category that appeared to be the best fit based on the actual and/or potential number of victims and other available information.

A note on injuries

We treat injuries in Mass Violence and Single events differently.

In the case of Mass Violence, we included the total number of injured victims. In the case of Single events, we did not. We made this choice to emphasize the magnitude of many Mass Violence incidents and to avoid under-representing injuries in other types of violent school incidents, as explained below.

By our definition, Mass Violence incidents are intended to claim many victims. In order for this report to explore the full extent of each event, it was important to track both deaths and injury victims. Because these events tend to be well-documented, it was not usually difficult to find information about injuries, although reports sometimes differed on the number of people injured.

The problem of tracking injuries was much more difficult in the case of Single events. To meet our definition, a Single event claimed one or two deaths. We excluded injury-only incidents because of their large numbers and the difficulties in identifying and tracking them through media accounts. There was, in some cases, an injury as well as a death in a Single event. However, including those injuries would have had the effect of seriously under-representing the total number of injuries in school violence incidents. Therefore, we excluded all injuries not associated with a Mass Violence event from this report.

Marginally school-related incidents

In addition to the 700 incidents we included in our collection, we also noted another 100 or so violent incidents that did not involve students on campus during school hours. These incidents include after-hour adult-on-adult homicides (usually employee and domestic violence); adult suicides; bodies found on school grounds (not by students) with no apparent connection to the school; after-hours neighborhood violence (in a few cases involving school-aged youth) occurring on school grounds or spilling on to campus; after-hour police actions, including car chases and responses to burglaries and other crimes; and other odd events.

We note them here because they are often included in school violence counts. However, we do not include these incidents in our tallies because they did not occur in the presence of students and are not related to school policy or practice.

Selected Sources:

In order to compile the collection of incidents, we looked for leads in a variety of newspaper and media sources, including but not limited to the following:

Federal information sources:

Indicators of School Crime and Safety

School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS)

Newspaper lists:

U.S. News and World Report

The Telegraph

Indianapolis Star

School security organizations (resources and school incident listings):

National School Safety and Security Services

National School Safety Center

Newspaper-referenced Items on Wikipedia lists:


Read more from the RPM Special Edition on School Violence.