The most comprehensive analysis to date of American children who experience gun violence at school finds that they have higher rates of school absenteeism, lower high school and college graduation rates, and earn lower incomes by their mid-twenties.
The study, posted as an NBER working paper on Monday and co-authored by Maya Rossin-Slater, a SIEPR faculty fellow and assistant professor of medicine, shows that students at schools where a shooting occurs — including incidents in which a gun is fired, but no one is physically injured or killed — face lasting negative consequences. On average, shooting-exposed students are:
- More likely to be chronically absent from school and repeat a grade.
- Less likely to graduate high school, enroll in college, or earn a bachelor’s degree.
- Less likely to hold a job as young adults.
Moreover, by the ages of 24 to 26, those who attended a school where a shooting occurred earn 13.5 percent less compared to same-age individuals who attended similar schools and to cohorts who attended the same schools in years before the shooting took place. The researchers estimate that this reduction in earnings amounts to a loss in lifetime income of $115,550 per shooting-exposed student.
Rossin-Slater says the study, which analyzes all Texas public schools that experienced a shooting over the past two decades, shines a light on how pervasive and harmful the effects of gun violence are. The results show that the adversity is universal, cutting across race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status.
“Attention in the media on gun violence in schools tends to focus on the mass, indiscriminate, horrific events like Sandy Hook and Parkland and the victims, their families and friends,” Rossin-Slater says. “But there are many more shootings that take place at American schools in which nobody dies. Our research shows that children exposed to these shootings nevertheless experience massive disruptions in their learning and later economic well-being.”
According to Rossin-Slater, who is also a core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy, research on school shootings to date has largely focused on short-run impacts using average outcomes at the state or school level. Hers is one of the first studies to use large-scale individual-level data and follow students into early adulthood.
It also offers new evidence for policy debates on gun violence in the United States. Viewed through fatality rates alone, school shootings represent only a small fraction of the country’s gun violence fallout even as they have become more frequent. But this research and other recent studies show that the damage is much bigger than the death toll — and that school shootings represent a particularly harmful type of gun violence because of their long-run impacts on surviving students.
“When there’s a school shooting, you don’t just have one child in a classroom who has experienced violence, maybe at home or in their neighborhood,” Rossin-Slater says. “The negative impacts of gun violence get amplified because now you can have an entire classroom or grade cohort of trauma-affected children.”
First analysis of long-term impacts
More than 20 years after the Columbine High School massacre, the number of school shootings in the United States has more than doubled. In their paper, Rossin-Slater and her co-authors estimate that, in 2018 and 2019 alone, more than 100,000 American children attended a school where a shooting took place.
Prior studies on the effects of school shootings have shown that they have negative impacts on children’s mental well-being. Last year, for example, Rossin-Slater, whose broader research agenda examines how public policies and other factors impact child health and well-being, co-authored a study that found a 21 percent increase in antidepressant use among youth under age 20 in local communities where fatal school shootings occurred in the prior two years.
Much of the existing research on educational outcomes has relied on data at the state, district and school levels, and finds that shootings tend to lower test scores and enrollment. While useful, the results can be difficult to interpret, Rossin-Slater says.
“We can’t always know, for example, whether the effects are universal or perhaps driven by a small subgroup of students,” she says. “We also don’t know much about the longer-term implications of shootings on children’s well-being.”
Her latest study breaks new ground on a few fronts. Along with Marika Cabral and Bokyung Kim from the University of Texas at Austin, and Molly Schnell and Hannes Schwandt from Northwestern University, Rossin-Slater collected and analyzed data on individual students’ educational and economic trajectories through age 26.
They did this by linking several datasets, including detailed student-level records on all public K-12 students in Texas with information about school staff, records on all individuals enrolled in Texas public colleges and universities, as well as employment and earnings records for all Texas residents. They study the 33 public schools in Texas where shootings occurred between 1995 and 2016.
The team’s findings are troubling. In the first two years after a school shooting, students are more likely to be chronically absent from school and to repeat a grade. To study longer-term outcomes, the team analyzed shootings that took place in high schools.
They found that students who were sophomores and juniors at the time of the incident were 3.7 percent less likely to graduate high school; 9.5 percent less likely to enroll in any college; 17.2 percent less likely to enroll in a 4-year college; and 15.3 percent less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 26.
Meanwhile, students who were in grades 9 to 11 when the shooting occurred were 6.3 percent less likely to be employed between the ages of 24 and 26. They also earned about $2,780 — or 13.5 percent — less than students who attended similar schools and students who attended the same schools in the years before the shooting occurred. This effect translates into a $115,550 loss in lifetime earnings per shooting-exposed student.
The researchers report additional findings. For example, while the adverse impacts are universal, the researchers find some evidence that non-Hispanic Black students and those who receive free or reduced price lunches experience larger increases in chronic absenteeism and grade repetition. They also analyzed whether students change schools in the years after a shooting, but do not find any evidence suggesting that they do.
Using data on school staffing, the researchers also find that the presence of mental health professionals on campus — including school counselors and psychologists — does not mediate the adverse impacts of a shooting. Rossin-Slater says that further research is needed to understand how school resources may be used to help undo some of the harm of exposure to shootings.
Potential pandemic fallout
Rossin-Slater says that the research shows that policy discussions about the costs of gun violence should not only focus on the fatalities, but also account for the large costs of exposure to violence on children’s long-term educational and economic trajectories. Though the number of deaths on school campuses is low when compared to deaths from gun violence in other places, the damage for those exposed is far-reaching. “Schools,” she says, “turn out to be particularly bad settings for this type of violence.”
The COVID-19 pandemic makes this awareness even more urgent, says Rossin-Slater. While widespread school closures have diminished the frequency of gun violence on school campuses, the mental health effects of the crisis could ultimately lead to more violence when students return to in-person learning, she says.
“In a country in which guns are generally available, gun violence can be easily triggered by mental health issues and economic disadvantages,” Rossin-Slater says. “The pandemic has generated adversity on both fronts, and while we should be happy when kids are back to learning in school, it’s also critical to pay a lot of attention to their mental well-being and their economic circumstances. We urgently need policies that can prevent gun violence from occurring at schools in the first place, and if and when it does occur, we need to make sure to provide resources to students who are at school when it happens.”
Marika Cabral, Molly Schnell and Hannes Schwandt were academic visitors in residence at SIEPR during the 2018-19 academic year, where they began working with Rossin-Slater. The collaboration among Rossin-Slater, Schnell and Schwandt on the impact school shootings have on antidepressant use is showcased in this video series.
Krysten Crawford is a freelance writer