One day after gunfire pierced the night at a Palm Beach Central High football game, authorities were quick to insist that it was “not a school shooting.”
Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw led the charge, saying flatly at a Saturday news conference that it was “not a school-shooting situation” because no students were involved.
The incident, he said, was between two groups of adults with an ongoing feud who crossed paths outside the Wellington school’s football stadium.
“It just so happened to be in the parking lot of a school,” he said, “but it could have happened anywhere.”
School District Police Chief Frank Kitzerow made the same argument.
It wasn’t a school shooting, he said, but rather “an act of community violence that happened to spill onto a school campus.”
Given how emotionally freighted the term “school shooting” has become, it’s little surprise that local authorities would work to avoid any linking of the term to one of the area’s public schools.
But how correct are they to declare that the violent attack was not a “school shooting”?
Definitions of 'school shooting' vary
The meaning of the term is widely debated and varies depending on who is doing the counting.
It’s a debate that has heated up since the Parkland massacre, when activists used a broad definition of “school shooting” to make the phenomenon seem more widespread.
“There’s no legal definition or consensus for how best to define a school shooting,” PolitiFact California wrote in February.
While debates over the meaning of the term may seem academic, many journalists and policy-makers say clear definitions are important to a healthy public debate about how to confront the seemingly increasing number of shootings on campuses.
Since the federal government does not track school shootings, it has been left to private groups to compile statistics. And the groups doing so work with varying definitions.
“The messiness of counting school shootings often contributes to sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched,” The Atlantic wrote in February.
After 17 people were killed at a Parkland high school in February, many media outlets reported that it was the nation’s 18th school shooting of the year.
That figure surprised many people, and for good reason.
It was based on a tally by Everytown for Gun Safety – an anti-gun violence group co-founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And it was based on an unusually broad definition of the term.
Broadest definition: any gunfire on campus
Everytown, it turned out, considers any report of gunfire on a school campus to be a school shooting – even if no one was hit or the gunfire occurred late at night when the campus was empty.
For instance, the group included on its list the case of a man who committed suicide in his car in an abandoned school parking lot, as well as an unknown shooter who fired a bullet into the side of an empty school building.
In February, PolitiFact rated the claim that Parkland was the 18th school shooting of the year as “mostly false,” pointing out that the tally includes two suicides and three accidental firearm discharges.
Everytown defends its definition, telling the Washington Post that “every time a gun is discharged on school grounds it shatters the sense of safety.”
The organization’s database lists “at least 56 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in 2018,” although by Monday it did not appear to include the Palm Beach Central incident.
Clearly, Friday night’s shooting fit Everytown’s definition.
But other groups with narrower definitions also consider it a school shooting.
What about after-school events?
Another group that considers the Palm Beach Central incident to be a school shooting: the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.
In order to be included, the organization says that a gun incident has to occur with students or faculty present and either during school or an extracurricular activity.
Under this criteria, the organization has already added Friday’s incident to its list of school shootings, saying it is the 33rd of the year to result in an injury or death.
Also counting Friday’s incident as a school shooting is Education Week.
A news organization covering K-12 education policy and trends, Education Week has created its own school-shooting tracker.
The outlet defines a school shooting as any shooting incident where a victim was struck on a school campus or school bus, either during school hours or a school-sponsored event.
“There is no single right way of calculating numbers like this,” Education Week explains in its tracker, “and the human toll in the immediate aftermath and long term are impossible to measure.”
For Education Week, the fact that the shooting didn’t directly involve students or school staff doesn’t matter. If someone was injured by gunfire during a school event, it’s a school shooting.
The organization declared the Palm Beach Central shooting “the first school shooting of the 2018-19 school year.”
Overall, it calls it the 15th school shooting of 2018.
No students or staff involved? Then it's not, some say
Others, though, have proposed more narrow definitions that limit school shootings to incidents where students or staff were directly involved.
When Time.com did its own analysis of Everytown’s incident list in February, it limited the results using its own criteria: at least one person had to be injured or killed, the incident had to occur on school property, and either a shooter or one of the victims had to be either a student or teacher.
Under those rules, the Palm Beach Central incident would not have counted, since no students were injured or believed to have participated.
Another prominent media outlet that tracks school shootings is The Washington Post.
Unlike Time.com, The Washington Post does not limit its definition only to incidents in which students or teachers were among the shooters or victims.
But unlike Education Week, the news outlet excludes “after-hours events.” It decided to focus on "only those that happened on campuses immediately before, during or just after classes.”
Since Friday’s shooting didn’t happen during the school day, it would not count as a school shooting under The Post’s criteria.
Overall, The Washington Post counts 18 school shootings so far in 2018.
Authorities’ insistence that Friday’s incident wasn’t a “school shooting” may have been driven partly by concerns about the public schools’ image.
But they said one of their motives was to underscore that the school is safe.
“The bad guys in this were not there to shoot students, they were not there to go in and randomly kill a bunch of people,” Bradshaw said.
“They knew who they were looking for,” he added, “they just happened to find them on the perimeter of that football game.”