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PolitiFact Florida: There Really Have Been More School Students Killed This Year Than U.S. Troops

Jun 1, 2018

Has there really been more students killed in schools this year than U.S. troops killed in war zones overseas? And just how "independent" is Florida's Democratic Senator, Bill Nelson? WUSF's Steve Newborn looks into these claims with Allison Graves of PolitiFact Florida. 

The news has been pretty grim in the past few months. Shootings in once-sacrosanct schools seem to happen every couple of weeks. Santa Fe, Texas. Great Mills, Maryland. All culminating in the worst school shooting in recent history, in Parkland. Does this make it seem schools are a war zone?

It does to former Democratic Congresswoman and candidate for governor Gwen Graham.

In a May 18 Facebook post, Graham wrote, "So far this year, more students have been killed in schools than soldiers in combat zones. We are WAY past the point of talking. We need action now."

Is that true? Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling:

We found five shooting incidents that resulted in student fatalities in 2018. The figures below do not include adults slain in these incidents, because they are outside the scope of Graham’s statement.

Benton, Ky., Jan. 23, 2018: 2 students killed

Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, 2018: 14 students killed

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Birmingham, Ala., March 7, 2018: 1 student killed

Great Mills, Md., March 20, 2018: 1 student killed

Santa Fe, Texas, May 18, 2018: 8 students killed

Total: 26 students killed in school shootings through May 18, 2018. (Including the adults killed would raise the count to 31 total fatalities.)

Members of the military killed in combat zones

There are two active combat operations for the U.S. military: Operation Inherent Resolve, which includes anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq and Syria, and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, which includes military activities in Afghanistan.

In 2018, there have been five deadly incidents in Operation Inherent Resolve, on Jan. 8, Feb. 19, March 7, March 15, and March 30. Each of these incidents resulted in one American service member’s death, except for the one on March 15, in which seven airmen died in the crash of an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter in western Iraq.

So the total number of deaths in 2018 for Operation Inherent Resolve is 11.

Meanwhile, there have been two deaths this year in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. They occurred on Jan. 1 and April 30.

Total: 13 service members were killed in combat zones in 2018. That's half the number of student deaths in school shootings this year.

Some caveats

The first caveat to consider is that today’s snapshot in time is unusual in recent history. Specifically, the number of school-shooting deaths is unusually high in 2018, according to the Post’s database of school shootings.

Through May 18 of 2017, there were two deaths in school shootings. Through May 18 of 2016, it was one; for 2015 it was zero; and for 2014 it was one. Looking at full-year totals, the Post article found that the number of military deaths in 2017 exceeded 30, compared to five school-shooting deaths.

The second caveat to know involves the death rate — that is, deaths divided by the total population at risk of death. The death rate remains significantly higher for members of the military in combat zones.

There are currently an estimated 50.8 million students enrolled in K-12 classes. That’s vastly larger than the combination of personnel serving in the two military operations cited above, which is less than 20,000 people, according to publicly disclosed data.

The statement is accurate but needs additional information. That meets our definition of Mostly True.

In our next ruling, a Democratic political action committee is entering the fray, as Gov. Rick Scott takes on incumbent U.S. Senator Bill Nelson. For weeks, Scott has hammered away at Nelson for voting with the most liberal members of Congress. Now, the Senate Majority PAC is airing this ad:

"He served his country as an Army captain and as an astronaut on the shuttle Columbia," the narrator says. "And as one of America’s most independent senators, Bill Nelson has delivered for Florida."

Just how "independent" is Bill Nelson? Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling:

As evidence of this claim, the Senate Majority PAC cited a Congressional Quarterly voting study from 2017. According to that study, Nelson voted with his party 88 percent of the time during 2017.

Only Sens. Joe Donnelly, Susan Collins, Angus King, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, Mark Warner and Joe Manchin voted with their party less often, according to that analysis. (The lowest percentage was 64 percent, from Manchin.)

"In 2017, Nelson was tied with Senator (Tom) Carper in being ranked by CQ as the eighth-most independent senator," said spokesman Chris Hayden.

Steven Tauber, the director of the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida, said "independence" is a subjective and multidimensional term.

"If we equate independence with a ‘moderate’ or ‘centrist’ legislative record, then I think it is definitely fair to say that on his legislative record, Nelson is one of the independent members of the Senate," he said.

However, being moderate or centrist does not always equate to being "independent."

"To me, (independence) implies more than occasionally voting against one's party; it means speaking honestly and working with members of the other party on legislation," said Gregory Koger, a political science professor at the University of Miami. "These are measurable things, but I don't know if anyone has done it yet."

If we liken independence with a "moderate" legislative record, then it is fair to say that on his legislative record, Nelson is one of the more independent Senate members. Analyses suggest Nelson voted with his party-line less than other Democrats.

That said, experts cautioned there’s more that goes in to being an independent then just a moderate or centrist voting record — including having an open dialogue with both sides of the aisle, which can be hard to measure.

We rate this claim Half True.