Are schools safe enough?

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: school shootings.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: In the wake of a shooting this week at a school near Denver, some parents are once again wondering if it’s safe to send their children to school.

School shootings seem all too regular these days.

Gun control advocates say that’s because they are, on average. And schools are spending big money to make security improvements designed to keep kids safe.

EICHER: But is all that really necessary?

An increasing number of researchers say no, not really.

That’s because, despite the perception—and some contradictory evidence—school shootings are still quite rare.

How so? WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones has some perspective.

LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: A child in the U.S. is more likely to die in a bicycle accident than in a school shooting.

Surprised? That’s probably because a flood of media coverage makes school shootings seem more common than they are.

James Alan Fox is a criminology professor at Northeastern University. After the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Fox explained his research during an appearance on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal.

He says contrary to the pervasive narrative that school shootings are a growing epidemic, the trend line is down since the 1990s.

FOX: In fact in the early 1990s there were an average of about four-dozen homicides in schools each year. A lot of that was gang-related. And then since that time, the homicides in schools have dropped. We now have on average about 10 students killed each year at school.

So if schools are actually safer than they used to be, why do they feel so dangerous?

FOX: Part of the difference, and the reason why people believe that schools are more at risk today than they were then is the nature of the media coverage. Back in the late ’80s you didn’t have cable news channels that would have 24-hour coverage. You didn’t have satellite trucks that would show images of families embracing and children crying, beaming them right into your living room, making it feel like it happened just down the street.

According to a recent poll, one-third of parents fear for their child’s safety at school. They also support increased security measures like armed police officers and metal detectors.

But those measures may be counterproductive. Benjamin Fisher is a criminal justice professor at the University of Louisville.

FISHER: There’s absolutely the compulsion to react to do something. And nobody wants sort of the worst case scenario to happen in their school. And then almost anything, people would be willing to do to stop that. Well, the statistics don’t back up that as a good strategy, but as like a person who cares about kids, I totally understand that.

Fisher is among a growing group of researchers pushing back against calls to harden schools.

FISHER: There’s not evidence that having more sort of target-hardening is going to prevent mass school violence. If you have all bulletproof windows in your school, a shooter is going to find a different way to get in the school.

Turning schools into fortresses isn’t cheap. One market research firm calculated that in 2017 alone, orders from U.S. schools generated $2.7 billion in revenue for companies selling security equipment and services.

And all those measures designed to make students safe are having some unintended consequences. First, they tend to create a culture of fear and suspicion that extends beyond the school building.

FISHER: You know, what we learn in school is what we take out into society. I fear that we’re training future citizens to go out and feel untrusted and, and be used to being under surveillance. And I see a lot of problems with that.

Statistics also show that having security officers on campus leads to more arrests. And those arrests often are for behavior that in the past would have landed a student in detention, not handcuffs.

Benjamin Fisher notes the so-called “zero tolerance” approach to discipline disproportionately affects minority students.

FISHER: We see that students are perceived as more threatening or more troublemaking or need to be corrected by using punishment. Whereas in whiter and wealthier schools, they take a much more relationship-building sort of stance.

Fisher says schools need to consider whether the potential long-term negative effects for so many students are worth it. But he admits the contradictory  statistics don’t help that analysis.

FISHER: For a school shooting to happen at Central Middle School today, it’s almost a statistical impossibility that it will happen because it’s so rare. But at a national level, for a school shooting to happen sometime in this next month, I hate to say it, but like at the pace we’re going, it seems quite a bit more likely.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Leigh Jones.

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski) Police and others are seen outside a recreation center where students are reunited with their parents, in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, Colo., after a shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch Tuesday, May 7, 2019. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Are schools safe enough?

  1. Kurt Calloway says:

    Interesting story in light of the recent shootings at schools. Thanks for the challenging perspective. It’s not mentioned in the story, but I’d be surprised if the increase in school security and awareness weren’t the main causes for the dropping rate of school shootings.

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