Every time there is a national tragedy of any sort, an outcry immediately follows: "NOW is the time to finally do something about this!" The implication is that tragedies are the ideal catalysts to bring about change because they cause us all to focus on serious problems and finally deal with them.
The reality, of course, is exactly the opposite. Legislation enacted in response to tragedy is often completely irrational, divorced from facts and data, and ineffectual. It is usually passed through in a rush of emotional responses — and once it becomes law, it is often nearly impossible to get off the books.
If you doubt me, consider that we all still have to remove our shoes while going through airport security in spite of the fact that the only person in history who ever attempted to blow up an airplane with a shoe bomb was caught even though he did not remove his shoes going through security. And by the way, if you're keeping score, it's been 17 years since Richard Reid's idiotic plot was foiled, and no one is even seriously discussing ending the sad shoe-removal charade.
Still, airport shoe removal is a relatively petty annoyance in the grand scheme of things. It seems inevitable that larger, more important changes are coming to American society after the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last week. Many of these changes will certainly be bad ideas, but anyone who has the audacity to question their necessity or efficacy will be labeled a hater of the lives of children.
Setting aside the gun control debate for a moment, one of the most worrisome beliefs that appears to be taking root in the American consciousness is the idea that our schools are currently unsafe places and that therefore, something must be done to make them less unsafe. Politicians on both sides of the aisle — both local and federal — are scrambling all over themselves to advance proposals to "harden" school grounds in various ways.
You would certainly be forgiven for thinking that schools have become horrendously unsafe killing zones, because the media have intentionally created that impression with their repeated sensationalist and distasteful coverage orgies every time a school shooting takes place. The media's agenda — the removal of guns from American society — is transparent and obvious, so gun rights advocates respond to the coverage by retorting that the correct response to these tragedies is to arm teachers/harden schools/whatever.
Almost no one, meanwhile, is stopping to ask the question: Are America's schools actually unsafe? The evidence is overwhelming that your child's school is by far the safest place that they spend time. By a huge, overwhelming, staggering margin. And yes, that includes your own home.
Here are the facts:
Accurate statistics on school shootings are notoriously difficult to come by and subject to controversy over what counts as a "school shooting." For the purposes of this post, I will accept figures from the Gun Violence Archive, which claims that 138 people have been killed in "school shootings" since Sandy Hook in 2012 (including Sandy Hook and Parkland, which account for more than one third of the total deaths between them). Notably, the Gun Violence Archive defines a "school shooting" as "An incident that occurs on school property when students, faculty and/or staff are on the premises. Intent during those times are not restricted to specific types of shootings."
In other words, this includes suicides, incidents where one adult confronts another adult on school premises and shoots them, etc. Literally any event where someone is shot on a school premises and there are students and teachers present. So among those 138 killed in school shootings since 2012, far less than the total of 138 have been actual students killed by another person shooting at them. It's difficult to say exactly how many, but it's pretty safe to say that over the last six years, no more than 20 students on average are killed by gunfire on school grounds. It's probably closer to 15 or less.
I don't know whether that number sounds like a lot or a little to you. As a matter of statistics, it is completely infinitesimal. We are a nation of over 300 million people, about 70 million of which shuffle off to school and spend half their waking hours there. The death of every school age child is a tragedy, of course. However, it is a regrettable fact of life that nothing can be done to prevent children from dying altogether — and statistically speaking, the likelihood of your child being killed a school shooting is a freak occurrence that is roughly as likely to occur as you winning a Powerball drawing at some point in your life.
Your child is unlikely to die of homicide at all, but if they die of homicide, it is extremely unlikely that this homicide will occur at their school. The CDC estimates that only 2.6 percent of all youth homicides (including non-gun accidental homicides, which are far more common) occur at school. Given that students generally spend roughly half their waking hours at school, this is strong evidence that schools are already doing an extraordinary job of preventing youth homicides.
Meanwhile, outside of schools, children die preventable deaths in far greater numbers than are found in school shootings. For instance, here are some causes of death with average annual death rates just for teenagers, according to the CDC:
- Heart disease (491 per year)
- Poisoning (550 per year)
- Drowning (393 per year)
- Traffic accidents (5,738 per year)
Although these incidents are not covered ad nauseam on the news, your child is more than 40 times more likely to die from getting into your medicine cabinet or into some other household product and poisoning themselves with it than they are from being shot after you drop them off at school. Which is to say nothing of the fact that they are many hundreds of times more likely to die in the car on the way to and from school than they are from a school shooting, or from any other cause at school at all.
"But Leon," someone will surely say. "Even if the number of deaths due to school shootings is infinitesimally small, shouldn't we attempt to make it smaller?"
Of course! I don't say that no discussions should be had about ways that we can improve the situation. The point of this post is twofold: First, I think it's dangerous to give the impression to parents that it isn't safe to leave their kids at school. There's a freakout brewing that could have negative consequences for education, and the best response to a freakout is facts. Second, I think it's important to understand that measures to improve safety inevitably come with costs, and we ought to at least consider those before rushing to enact public policy that will be difficult to undo.
Allow me to illustrate. An average of over 2,300 teenage drivers die in car accidents per year. That is more than 100 times the number of all children of all ages who are killed in school shootings per year. There is a huge amount of research indicating that teenage drivers get in fatal accidents at hugely disproportionate rates to the rest of the population.
If we really believed that public policy should take any measure, no matter how intrusive, to prevent the deaths of children under 18, the number one thing we would do would be to pass a law taking drivers' licenses away from everyone under the age of 19. We don't do that, though, because we've decided as a society that there's value in teenagers driving cars in spite of the risks.
Similarly, there's value in your kid not having to walk through the equivalent of a TSA screening every time they enter the front doors of their school. There's value in not having a giant police force present at your child's elementary school. There's value in creating an atmosphere of welcoming and excitement when your child enters and leaves their school, and also in not hammering them over the head with non-subtle clues that "DANGER LURKS HERE" around every corner while they are at school. Which is to say nothing of the monetary costs associated with "hardening" schools according to the various proposals being floated around.
I never had a thought for any of these things when I was growing up and going to school, and as a result, I pretty much enjoyed my school experience, which I assume contributed to the fact that I became a reasonably well-educated person. I know I'm probably not the only one.
If we teach children that schools are places where they need to have fear, or be constantly under guard, that is going to have important consequences for the future of this country. Is it worth the trade off? I don't know, but I'm not ready to jump headlong into such a solution when school is already by far the safest place for kids to be.