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Media Continues to Cause Distorted Fear of School Violence

Friday, April 19, 2019

Media Continues to Cause Distorted Fear of School Violence

When it comes to the wellbeing of today’s youth, one would think that all could agree that provoking unnecessary fear should be avoided. That apparently is not the case, however, when it comes to pushing the narrative that changes are urgently needed to America’s gun control laws to keep schoolchildren safe from an “epidemic” of “gun violence” that is spiraling out of control. The truth is that schools are as safe as they’ve been in the last two decades, yet polls show the public believing the opposite to be true.

According to an Economist/YouGov poll conducted April 13 – 16, 61% of Americans think students and faculty today are less safe from firearm-related violence in schools than they were in 1999. The poll additionally revealed that two thirds of the respondents believe school shootings have increased during that timeframe.

A YouGov article summarizing the results stated, “Well over half the public say they have heard ‘a lot’ about [firearm-related school violence], the horror of which may have caused so many Americans to say that school shootings have increased, and not decreased, in the last 20 years.”

These findings should concern anyone who believes reality is relevant to policymaking and who wants the best for America’s schoolchildren because they show kids are being unnecessarily terrified about a risk of harm that if anything has actually decreased in recent decades.

Northeastern University Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy James Alan Fox has waged a lonely campaign to bring a dose of reality to the modern discussion of firearm-related violence in schools. An avowed supporter of gun control, he nevertheless seeks to reassure students and parents that – contrary to what they hear in the media – schools remain a safe place.

Fox has published research showing that “shooting incidents involving students have been declining since the 1990s.” Commenting on his findings, he stated, “There is not an epidemic of school shootings.”

Fox also responded to the wave of media stories marking the 20th anniversary of the terrible murders at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, by admonishing readers in a USA Today editorial this week that “the level of fear is inconsistent with the risk.” The article goes on to suggest measures that can be taken to promote a safe school environment without sending students and faculty an exaggerated message that the “bad guy is gunning for you!”

Fox blamed “cable news and social media” for promoting inaccurate perceptions around firearm-related violence in schools.

Fellow gun control advocate Garen Wintemute of the University of California at Davis agreed with Fox, telling NPR last year:

Schools are just about the safest place in the world for kids to be. … Although each one of them is horrific and rivets the entire nation for a period of time, mass shootings at schools are really very uncommon, and they are not increasing in frequency. What's changed is how aware we are of them.

Harvard instructor and expert in risk analysis David Ropeik has calculated that the statistical likelihood of any public school student being killed by a gun in school on any given day since 1999 as 1 in 614,000,000. Ropeik characterized that as “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.”

Given all this, it’s not only inaccurate for the media to portray firearm related violence in schools as an increasing threat that should preoccupy America’s students and teachers, it’s unethical and subordinates the peace of mind of young kids to a political agenda.

Americans should celebrate the fact that schools are getting safer and should provide reassurance, not additional trauma, to children saturated by today’s agenda-driven and too often misleading media environment.

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