COLUMN: Don’t believe the hype about violence at schools

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Sometimes the best service the media can provide is a simple message.

Stay calm. Things aren’t that bad.

Whenever newspapers and the networks report on a school shooting – much less a mini-spree of them – the temptation is to think that the world is spiraling out of control.

The cable news networks start frothing for ratings. Up go the on-screen graphics – open-ended fear-mongering like “Is your child in danger?”

Self-appointed school-security experts – looking to make a buck as consultants – start e-mailing reporters about the urgent threat to America’s children.

And legislators, eager for five minutes with Nancy Grace, start overreacting and throwing around dumb ideas.

Everybody wins – except for anyone who wants to point out the truth. Which is that violence in schools has plummeted over the past decade.

It may be hard to think about that when your TV shows a line of Amish buggies rolling in a funeral procession – or when the country has three school shootings in a week’s time. But it’s the truth.

By just about every measure, school violence has been falling steadily since the early 1990s. Federal statistics say incidents of serious school violence were twice as common in 1994 as they were in 2004.

School shootings are extremely rare. There are roughly 125,000 schools in America. If you had 10 Columbines a year – many more than there actually are, of course – you could expect your kid’s school to be hit roughly once every 12,500 years.

Twelve thousand years ago, the Neanderthals were using stone tools, woolly mammoths roamed the earth and humans were a millennium away from inventing agriculture.

And most kids shot in schools aren’t hit by the sort of flashy attacks that make CNN – they’re victims of gang violence or criminal disputes.

In this country, you’re more than 50 times more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to die in a school shooting. But strangely, Nancy Grace doesn’t spend much time on the threat from above.

(“Lightning: Is your child in danger?”)

The reason I’m hammering this point home is that moments like now are when a lot of dumb policies are put into place. It’s high season for overreaction.

You may remember that, after the Columbine attacks, for a few months we were told that every kid who listened to Marilyn Manson or dressed like a roadie for The Cure was a ticking time bomb.

The biggest overreaction came in the philosophy that came to dominate school discipline in the 2000s – “zero tolerance.” That’s the idea that schools shouldn’t have any leeway in deciding what happens to a kid who violates a school rule, however harmlessly.

Zero tolerance is how a girl in Shreveport (true story) gets expelled for a year for the crime of having Advil in her purse.

It’s how a kid in Pennsylvania (true story) gets expelled for a year after being caught filing his nails with a miniature Swiss army knife he’d found in a hallway. (“Weapons possession,” of course.)

It’s how a kid in Virginia (again, true story) gets a 10-day suspension for violating the school’s alcohol policy – by bringing mouthwash to school. A series of studies has shown zero-tolerance policies don’t do much to prevent bad things from happening. In fact, they may increase problems by pushing decent kids into a rougher crowd by expelling them or putting them into the juvenile justice system.

But after Columbine, “zero tolerance” was the phrase on everyone’s lips.

The overreactions are already rolling in to last week’s Amish shootings.

Some folks in Pennsylvania are pushing for a law that would require an armed security guard to be stationed outside every one-room Amish schoolhouse in the state.

A legislator in Wisconsin has come up with his own solution: Arm public school teachers with concealed weapons.

Because there’s nothing about an American high school that can’t be made better by a few dozen Glocks, apparently. Let’s give those classroom yelling matches a fightin’ chance to escalate!

His idea earned the legislator, a man named Frank Lasee, spots on CNN and MSNBC on Friday, not to mention what he describes on his Web site as “over 50 interviews in the last two days.” As he told a local reporter last week, no doubt breathlessly: “I am doing media around the world.”

I’m glad he’s gotten the attention he craves.

But to the rest of you, I’ll just repeat:

Stay calm. Things aren’t that bad.