By Eric Rossen PhD, NCSP
“Our society has run amok.”
“What is happening in our schools?”
“You aren’t safe anywhere these days.”
“It wasn’t like this when I was growing up.”
Whether through conversation with my family, friends at dinner, or concerned parents talking to me as a mental health professional, I have heard these statements with growing frequency. With many high-profile violent acts in the last year (e.g. Sandy Hook Elementary School, Boston Marathon bombings, Aurora shooting) some people perceive that our country, our communities, and even our schools have become less safe than they used to be. As a parent, I worry too. Statistically, though, these perceptions are false.
First, let’s start with some basic statistics regarding violence in the United States:
- Death from firearms, either from homicide, suicide, or accident, have remained stable for the last 15 years.
- Compared to 20 years ago, gun homicide has decreased 49%, and crime victimization with a firearm (e.g., mugging) has decreased 75%.
- The total US homicide rate is lower than it has been in 50 years.
- Violent crimes in general decreased by over 15% from 2007 to 2011.
These data are somewhat compelling. Indeed, they do not suggest that we should start telling our children they can finally accept candy from strangers. These statistics do, however, help dispel any myths that things have gotten worse. On the contrary, they have unequivocally improved from a national perspective.
What about our schools, though, and what can history tell us? We all, sadly, recall the tragic events at Columbine High School in 1999 that led to the homicide of 12 students and one teacher, 24 injured students, a community forever changed, and a national landscape of fear and uncertainty. Immediately following the Columbine shooting, a majority of Americans felt that a similar situation was likely to happen in their community (not just possible, but likely). Even a year after Columbine, only 40% of parents surveyed across the nation expressed confidence in their child’s safety at school.
The national data at that time, however, did not support these sentiments. That year, 17 students died of homicide in schools, whereas over 12,000 youth were killed in accidents or homicides outside of school. In other words, among all deaths of school-aged youth, less than 1% occurred on school grounds. Further, an interesting analysis was completed by Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, and Jimerson (2010) that found that any individual school can expect to experience a student homicide once every 6,000 years.
To be sure, a single homicide at school is too much. These events should force us to ask how we can better protect our children and prevent these tragedies. As a school psychologist and a parent, I think that more can and should be done to ensure that these kinds of horrific events never happen. However, I take comfort in the fact that schools remain one of the safest places for our children, if not the safest place. The fact remains that our children are in more danger getting in a car than walking into a school building — yet we typically don’t give a second thought to strapping our kids into their car-seats and heading down the highway. The point is, if we are to direct our energies toward keeping our children safe, we should base these efforts on evidence and not just fear.
With that in mind, it’s important that we consider how to better direct our resources in schools. As product designers continue to leverage fear, sell bulletproof backpacks, and promote educators carrying firearms in schools, I suggest we think more about how to prevent millions of students from experiencing non-lethal violence in schools on a daily basis (e.g. bullying, harassment, discrimination), support those with mental health problems, and improve the psychological safety of our schools. We should acknowledge the positive relationships that educators develop with their students as they encourage them to become thoughtful citizens. We ought to advocate for improved access to school-employed mental health professionals such as school psychologists, school counselors, school social workers, and school nurses. We need to thank the administrator that knows our child’s name and greets them every day (no matter what) and makes them feel like a member of a community. We should promote school-wide prevention initiatives that focus on improving the entire school climate. And lastly, we must remind our children that they are safe, cared for, and loved at home, in school, and wherever they go.
Eric Rossen, PhD, is a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed psychologist in Maryland. He currently serves as director of professional development and standards at the National Association of School Psychologists. Dr. Rossen is co-editor of Supporting and Educating Traumatized Students: A Guide for School-Based Professionals. Follow him on Twitter @E_Rossen. Also read Framework for Safe and Successful Schools.