Mapping gunshots near DC schools

ShotSpotter picked up 336 incidents of gunfire in DC during the school day (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.), over the 2011–12 school year. More than half of these incidents occurred within 1,000 feet of a public school.

This map shows schools within range of ShotSpotter sensors, which cover 17 square miles of the city. Schools not shown may have been exposed to gunfire but are not covered by ShotSpotter.

Hover over points on the map to explore.

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Everyday violence: Gunfire near DC schools

On May 6, just after 9 a.m., gunmen in Southeast DC opened fire on people standing near a bus stop on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, wounding three, including two 17-year-olds reported to be Ballou High School students. Nearby, Ballou and Imagine Southeast Public Charter School were put on lockdown as police searched for suspects.

In April, a man was shot and killed steps away from Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School in Northeast DC. Parents and neighbors said that kids were on the playground at the time, close enough to hear the gunfire before teachers rushed them inside. One parent, quoted in DCist, said that her 4-year-old son had nightmares following the shooting; another said that her daughter was afraid to go back to school.

For some DC students, nearby shootings like these are unfortunately common. Some schools have been in close range of as many as 16 incidents in the course of a school year, according to a new Urban Institute analysis. Even when there are no victims—when it’s just the sudden, loud sound of gunfire and the risk of being shot—everyday violence can have a profound effect on children.

“When people think about school violence, they think about mass shootings, which—as horrible as they are—are very rare events,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “All too often, the children who are exposed to gun violence on a day-to-day basis are overlooked.”

For their study, La Vigne and her coauthor, Sam Bieler, expanded on a Washington Post analysis of data from ShotSpotter, a gunfire-detection system that covers about a third of DC. La Vigne and Bieler studied the data with a focus on students, estimating the volume of gunfire near schools during the school day (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.), over the 2011–12 school year.

While we don’t yet know how kids are affected by repeatedly hearing gunfire, research has shown that kids exposed to gun violence or who witness violence can suffer from trauma and stress, La Vigne said. Surveys have attempted to find out how much violence youth experience, but the findings are inconsistent, and crime stats don’t capture the full scope of gun violence around schools. ShotSpotter’s data provide a consistent, geographically precise measure to begin filling in that picture.

“When you’re talking about multiple-round incidents—5, 10, 15, 20 rounds—that’s unmistakable… that sounds like gunfire.”

:: Sam Bieler

What does gunfire sound like?

Gunfire at 444 feet
Gunfire at 1,016 feet

Nine percent of schools were exposed to 48 percent of gunfire incidents

La Vigne and Bieler limited their study to the 2011–12 school year, leaving out gunshots on holidays, half days, or days when schools were closed. They counted 336 total incidents of gunfire in areas covered by ShotSpotter and found that more than half occurred within 1,000 feet of a school. That’s a distance roughly the length of three football fields, close enough for a shot to be heard indoors.

Because a single gunshot might be heard by multiple schools within a 1,000-foot radius, collectively schools were exposed to a total of 249 gunfire incidents.

“Gunfire is incredibly loud,” Bieler said. “I know there are some concerns that a single gunshot may sound like a firecracker or a backfiring car, but when you’re talking about multiple-round incidents—5, 10, 15, 20 rounds—that’s unmistakable…that sounds like gunfire.”

Of the 175 traditional public schools and public charters open in the 2011–12 school year, 116 fell within ShotSpotter’s range. Just 9 percent of these schools were exposed to nearly half (48 percent) of the gunfire incidents, experiencing 8 to 16 incidents each over the school year.

Twenty-five schools were exposed to gunfire around the time children usually go to school (8 to 9 a.m.) or when they leave for home (3 to 4 p.m.), putting them at risk of being caught in crossfire or witnessing the gun violence.

Four schools were especially close to a high volume of gunfire. Booker T. Washington Public Charter School, E.L. Haynes PCS on Georgia Ave., E. L. Haynes PCS on Kansas Avenue, and Meridian PCS—all in Northwest DC—were each within 500 feet of 9 to 11 incidents of gunfire.

La Vigne and Bieler cautioned against labeling the schools themselves as dangerous. “It’s very easy with that simple narrative to lay the problems at the feet of those communities, which is completely and utterly unfair,” Bieler said. “Crime and gun violence exist within a huge network of economic and social pressures. We’d have to study the whole picture before responsibly saying what the causes are and how we can more effectively remedy these harms.”

Gunfire data could better direct police and school resources

In the next phase of their research, La Vigne and Bieler would like to better understand how students perceive gunshots, whether they skip school because they’re afraid of gunfire along their commutes, how proximity to gunfire may affect academic outcomes, and how much they’re contributing to the gun violence around schools.

This analysis of gunfire data and upcoming research on the effects of exposure to gun violence may help police and schools figure out where and how to best dedicate their resources.

“From a research perspective, it’s all very well and good to know that X number of gunshots appear here,” Bieler said. “But I think law enforcement, schools, researchers, and communities need to come together and decide how can we bring that number down.”

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