Effort tracking US school shootings loses federal funding

Wooden crosses are placed at a memorial dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

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An effort to update one of the most comprehensive databases tracking school shootings nationwide is no longer receiving federal funding, according to the project’s top researcher, who says a private contractor recently decided not to renew his contract working on the database.  
 
The K-12 School Shooting Database has been widely cited by news organizations and featured in dozens of academic reports and studies, including numerous analyses of school safety by federal government agencies, including the Department of Justice, Department of Education and the Government Accountability Office. 
 
Since its inception four years ago, prompted by a high-profile school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the database had been supported by the federal Center for Homeland Defense and Security. 
 
But database co-founder David Riedman said a private company contracted by the federal center told him on June 30 that his contract with the company to work on the database, which expired that day, would not be renewed. 
 
Riedman said he believed political pressure played a role in that decision, which came weeks after the database received heightened press and public attention following a mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in late May in which 19 children and two adults were killed – the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. 
 
Riedman said he’s updated the database on his own over the past month on a separate website he’s funding himself, k12ssdb.org. He said he’s committed to continuing the project but plans to do so independently.

“I’m disappointed to see after four years for the project to go that direction after one of the worst school shootings in recent U.S. history,” said Riedman. 
 
Lea Culver, president and CEO of the private contractor, Creek Technologies Inc., declined to comment on why Riedman’s contract was not renewed, saying the company “does not comment directly on (employment) and consultant issues.” 
 
Creek Technologies, an Ohio-based company that specializes in information technology, educational services and management consulting, “continues to deliver high-quality services” to the federal center “and is not breaching its contractual obligations,” Culver said. 
 
The Center for Homeland Defense and Security this month revised its website to say future updates to the database will be done by Riedman on the new, independent website he created and provided a link to Riedman’s website. 
 
The center said it plans to convert the data previously collected into a historical report that will be part of an upcoming “School Shooting Safety Compendium to aid officials and researchers on the topic.” Along with the report, “the new Compendium website will include data, research links, recommended policies, procedures, and resources related to school safety and preventing violence in schools,” the center’s website said. 
 
Ed Early, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Naval Postgraduate School based in Monterey, Calif., which operates the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, said in a statement: “Neither CHDS nor NPS was or is a party to financial or employment negotiations between Creek Technologies and its subcontractor. Within federal regulations and guidelines, the contractor can pursue different paths and options to meet the government’s requirements to include employment of sub-contractors or not.” 
 
“Regardless of any changes behind the scenes, what is important is that CHDS remains committed to supporting the K-12 School Shooting Database project and ensuring that this valuable resource continues to inform policymakers on possible solutions to these extraordinarily tragic events,” the statement added. “As part of this effort, CHDS has taken measures to maintain the historical database record on the CHDS website as a definitive, reliable resource for CHDS students, researchers and the public.” 
 
While some other federal and privately run databases track gun violence nationwide, the K-12 School Shooting Database stands out in several ways. 
 
“It’s very, very valuable,” said Justin Heinze, an educational psychology professor at the University of Michigan who has used the database. “What I like a lot about this database is the granularity.” 
 
The definition for what types of incidents the database captures is broad. Riedman said the purpose is to not just account for high-profile mass shooting events, but also systemic gun violence incidents that can go overlooked and have been shown to disproportionately impact students of color and students from low-income families. According to the database, it “documents when a gun is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time, or day of the week.” 
 
There are more than 2,070 incidents recorded in the database, from a shooting Monday near a New York City high school that wounded a 16-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl to the nation’s deadliest school shooting on record – the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 children and 6 adults were killed. 
 
The data dates to 1970 – far longer than many other gun violence data sources – and it updates daily, whereas government data on mass shootings can lag by months or years. 

The database features uniquely rich details about each incident, such as describing where on school grounds the shooting occurred, what else was happening at the school at the time, and how the incident ended, which can be valuable for trying to understand trends and patterns around school gun violence, experts said. All the raw data, as well as details about the methodology researchers use to collect it, are available to anyone online. 
 
Heinze said if the project were to stop updating, it would be “a deficit to the research community.” 
 
He said that’s particularly the case because little research into gun violence was done from the mid-1990s, after the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied Congress to implement a de-facto ban on using federal funding for such research, until 2019, when Congress began allocating federal money to study gun violence – $25 million a year to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. 
 
“We are at a pivotal turning point where you are starting to see the federal government invest a lot of resources into gun violence prevention,” said Heinze, who co-directs the National Center for School Safety and is an affiliate of the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention. 
 
Kelly Drane, research director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said there should be a greater investment of federal dollars to track school shootings and such work should not be viewed as controversial. 
 
“The federal government should be interested in tracking gun violence at schools and presenting that data to the public,” said Drane. “Every American should want to know how many times guns are being fired at schools regardless of what you think the solutions are.”  
 
At the time of the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead and 17 injured, Riedman said he was enrolled in a Naval Postgraduate School program designed to incubate solutions for emerging homeland security issues.

“After Parkland, there were a number of warning signs, and those were missed because people didn’t realize they were warning signs,” Riedman said.


He and another classmate initially envisioned creating a resource for teachers and school administrators to look out for, and act upon, potential warning signs.

To develop that, “We wanted to look at as many prior school shootings as we could to see how many they could stop,” Riedman said. “But we just couldn’t find any good data.”

Instead, he and the classmate began to build a database of their own, which became the K-12 School Shooting Database. The first iteration was published in September 2018.
 
Since December 2018, Riedman said he has been the lone researcher who has updated the database. 

Riedman said the project expanded and got a boost in resources during 2020 after the pandemic freed up money that would have otherwise been spent on travel. Updates included getting help to revamp the webpage hosting the data and building new ways to present the data using maps and graphics. 

Riedman said he hopes to keep improving the database through new partnerships with researchers and academic institutions. 
 
“This information has a ton of power to inform public policy and prevent another attack,” Riedman said. 
 
He’s focused on keeping the project “independent, nonpartisan and very transparent.” 
 
While it wasn’t something he envisioned for the project a few weeks ago, he sees its newfound independence as a silver lining to his recent ordeal. 
 
“There are advantages to being involved with an official center and also disadvantages in terms of the amount of autonomy and how quickly you can make changes,” he said. Now, “there are a lot of opportunities to collaborate with people I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to collaborate with before.” 
 
“Ironically,” Riedman said, “this has highlighted the importance of this being an independent project.”