While it's not particularly surprising that unemployment and violence itself would correlate — if more people are out of work, more people may turn to crime — it's the first major study linking economics specifically with school shootings, long thought to be random tragedies.
"What we found out was that the rate goes up and down. There are periods where it’s higher and there’s periods when it’s lower," said Adam Pah, the study's lead author and a professor at Northwestern University, said of school shooting patterns.
"And when we saw the pattern, it kind of clicked for us that it’s mirroring economic insecurity," Pah continued. "And we tried to make it go away — we controlled for gun ownership and the amount of students. And it wouldn't go away."
What counts as a school shooting?
The initial goal of the project wasn't to determine the cause of school shootings, Pah said. Instead, it was to create a comprehensive set of data on school shootings — something that had never been done before.
"Is it just kindergarten through the 12th grade, or does college count? Does a mile away from school count?" Pah added, explaining the discrepancies in the data. "There just wasn’t anything consistent. So we wanted to define what mattered."
The shooting had to happen on school property. The gun had to be discharged, but didn't need to kill anyone. "It is also important to note that that this dataset is focused on all gun violence at schools and is not limited to mass shootings," the study says. Lastly, students and administrators had to be the ones in danger — meaning that an after-hours shooting or some kind of robbery didn't count.
Once the researchers settled on the definition, they built their own set of data using a combination of sources including studies from the Virginia Tech Review Panel and the National School Safety Council on School Associated Violent Deaths, as well as reports from media and advocacy groups.
Adding up the numbers
Eventually, they landed on a number: 381 incidents in 23 years. And when they laid the data out, they realized the tragic events might not be so random at all.
Although the study did not specifically analyze why school shootings and unemployment rise at the same time, the explanation likely has something to do with the fact that school is seen as a gateway to getting a better job, Pah said.
"It’s about the importance of the school-to-work transition ... as people get to this point, a lot of promises have been made," Pah said. "And when suddenly the rug gets ripped out from underneath you, you get lost and feel ostracized."
While more research is needed, Pah said the group is hopeful that investing more in school-to-work transition — such as through expanded on-the-job training — could help to address an underlying problem.
"These events are rare, it fortunately doesn’t happen every day. But it’s effectively the absolute worst thing that could happen," Pah said. "The fact that we can link these two things at all is a powerful argument for more local support."
Gun violence in schools remains a pervasive problem in the US. Earlier this month, Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump's pick for education secretary, came under scrutiny from gun safety advocates for suggesting during her confirmation hearing that guns should be allowed in schools to protect from threats like grizzly bears.
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