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Advocacy-Fueled Hysteria Hides the Truth on School Violence

Friday, June 1, 2018

Advocacy-Fueled Hysteria Hides the Truth on School Violence

In the wake of the two recent high-profile school shootings, the institutional gun control movement and many in the mainstream media have taken their always alarmist rhetoric to new heights. Michael Bloomberg anti-gun front group Everytown for Gun Safety has released misleading and routinely debunked figures on the prevalence of school shootings in the U.S. A New York Times columnist, wrote an item following the Houston shooting titled, “This Is School in America Now,” calling such tragedies an “everyday nightmare.” A reporter for the Washington Post authored an article with the salacious and misleading headline “2018 has been deadlier for schoolchildren than service members.” It wasn’t until the fifth paragraph that the Post bothered to mention that there are 50 million public school students as compared to 1.3 members of the military; meaning service in our armed forces is in fact, contrary to the headline, 17 times deadlier. Barack Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan called for a school boycott, while contending that “the threat of gun violence infects everyday life.”

All of this is meant to instill fear in parents and schoolchildren and adolescents in order produce ratings and clicks while pushing a stagnant gun control agenda. A sober look at the data reveals that school mass shootings are extraordinarily rare events and that schools are the safest place a child can be.

Northeastern University Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy James Alan Fox has led extensive academic research on mass shootings. In February, Fox released data he and colleague collected for a forthcoming book titled, “The Three R’s of School Shootings: Risk, Readiness, and Response.”

A Northeastern.edu article that summarized Fox’s research made clear that “Mass school shootings are incredibly rare events.” Further, it pointed out that the researchers found that “shooting incidents involving students have been declining since the 1990s.”

Quoting Fox, the item went on to state,

Four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than today, Fox said. "There is not an epidemic of school shootings," he said, adding that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents.

Following the shooting in Houston, Fox took to the pages of USA Today to reiterate his call for calm. Fox pointed out that “School shootings, however horrific, are not the new normal,” and that “despite the occasional tragedy, our schools are safe, safer than they have been for decades.”

Other academics have also tried to put the recent tragedies in perspective. Following the shooting in Parkland, Fla., Harvard instructor and expert in risk analysis David Ropeik wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled, “School shootings are extraordinarily rare. Why is fear of them driving policy?” 

Ropeik explained, 

The Education Department reports that roughly 50 million children attend public schools for roughly 180 days per year. Since Columbine, approximately 200 public school students have been shot to death while school was in session, including the recent slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (and a shooting in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday that police called accidental that left one student dead). That means the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000. And since the 1990s, shootings at schools have been getting less common.

Ropeik went on to point out,

The chance of a child being shot and killed in a public school is extraordinarily low. Not zero — no risk is. But it’s far lower than many people assume, especially in the glare of heart-wrenching news coverage after an event like Parkland. And it’s far lower than almost any other mortality risk a kid faces, including traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports.

In a moment of journalistic integrity, the New York Times addressed this topic in a piece titled, “Why Campus Shootings Are So Shocking: School Is the ‘Safest Place’ for a Child.” Director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice Melissa Sickmund told the paper, “Especially in the younger grades, school is the safest place they can be.” Pointing to a report from school safety analysts Safe Havens International, the Times explained, “In some parts of the country, accidents related to high winds, like tornadoes, presented a more deadly threat to children than an active shooter.” Driving the point on risk home in another New York Times piece, columnist Tina Rosenberg wrote, “A school can expect a shooting once every few thousand years.” 

Data from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics shows that there is not an upward trend in fatal violence in schools. The NCES’s Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2017 report, which measures through 2015, explained,

The percentage of youth homicides occurring at school remained at less than 3 percent of the total number of youth homicides between 1992–93 (when data collection began) and 2014–15, even though the absolute number of homicides of school-age youth at school varied across the years.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, the overall rate and number of homicide deaths among school-age children and adolescents (ages 5-18) dropped by more than half from 1993 to 2015.

Data from the report also indicates that “threats and injuries with weapons on school property” are decreasing. The report points out that “The percentage of students who reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property was lower in 2015 than in every survey year between 1993… and 2011.”

In light of all of the data showing schools are the safest place for a child, Duncan’s call for parents to keep their children out of school is a galling attempt to score political points with a proposal that would expose children and adolescents to more risk than they would ever face in a classroom. Moreover, Duncan’s comments reveal the altitude of the ivory tower he lives in.

Out here in the real world public schools are the nexus of several vital social services that extend beyond their educational mission. According to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 30 million American children rely on their schools for free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. In many cases this includes breakfast and lunch. In recent years, New York City has hesitated to close school for inclement weather because the need for these meals is so acute. Schools are also the avenue by which many children and adolescents in need obtain physical and mental health services.

While Duncan’s set might be fortunate enough to leave their children at home with the nanny, public schools provide a necessary childcare function for working and middle-class families. A report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that U.S. couples with young children spend 25.6 percent of their income on childcare, while single parents spend 52.7 percent. The Economic Policy Institute determined that in 23 states childcare costs more than in-state public college tuition.

In the midst of the current advocacy-fueled media hysteria, policymakers and concerned citizens should slow down long enough to examine the facts on school safety. A thoughtful analysis of the data reveals that the type of violence seen in Parkland, Fla. and Houston remains rare and that public schools are the safest place for children and adolescents.

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