Education Letter to the Editor

To Make Schools Safe, First Know the Facts

November 07, 2006 1 min read

To the Editor:

Violent crimes in schools are neither widespread nor increasing, contrary to the implications and assertions in Sam Chaltain’s Oct. 25, 2006, Commentary (“To Make Schools Safe, Make All Children Visible”). As the University of Virginia psychology professor Dewey G. Cornell, an expert on violence and school safety, told Newswise last month, “Violence in schools has been declining for over 10 years, and schools are still the safest place for a child to be.”

Mr. Cornell is also quoted in your article “School Shootings in Policy Spotlight” (Oct. 11, 2006) as saying that, even taking into account the 10 worst years of school violence, “the average school can expect [a student to kill someone at school] once every 12,000 years.” Further, a 1999 study jointly produced by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice calculated the odds that a child would die in school by homicide or suicide at no greater than one in 1 million. Other studies have found the odds closer to one in 2 million.

Highly publicized random acts of violence garner our attention. We often overestimate the prevalence of tragic or vivid events because they come to mind so readily. Psychologists call this phenomenon the “availability heuristic.”

The problem is compounded when, in response to a single tragedy, we formulate policies or make laws that disregard the frequency with which events normally occur. Despite the fact that school violence and juvenile crime had been declining for years, for example, many districts adopted draconian measures after the shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999. But a post-Columbine report by John Stossel of ABC, critical of media-saturated coverage of that event, noted that both lightning and bathtub accidents account for more deaths of children than do school shootings.

Any attempts to curb school violence should be preceded by first digesting the data about the extent of the problem.

Patrick Mattimore

San Francisco, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2006 edition of Education Week as To Make Schools Safe, First Know the Facts