School & District Management

There Have Been a Lot of Shootings This Year. Children Seem to Have Noticed

By Ross Brenneman — October 24, 2013 2 min read
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A new survey by the children’s magazine Highlights digs into the hopes, dreams, and psychology of America’s children, and suggests that they’re picking up on stories of violence nationwide.

The annual survey culled answers from 1,409 children this year, using questions that emphasized safety, values, and ambitions.

Here was a particularly interesting one: “If you could make one new law for our country, what would it be?”

Given this wide range of latitude, children called for laws to eliminate homework and strengthen universal education, among many others. But when kids’ thoughts turned to safety, something jumped out to report analysts: Children don’t focus on bullying—they focus on violence. Six percent of children thought their should be weapons laws, but only two percent mentioned bullying.

“There’s a national adult mania about bullying,” Marvin Berkowitz, a professor of character education at the University of Missouri, said during a panel discussion on the report held at the National Press Club in Washington on Wednesday. "[For children,] this is not high profile on their radar screen.” Instead, students are focusing on larger-scale societal violence.

Bullying persists as a major problem within schools, but those kinds of incidents don’t hit the news cycle as hard as shootings, like the massacre at Newtown Elementary School, or the Navy Yard shooting in Washington, or the deaths this week of two teachers in separate incidents, or the other incident this week involving a shooting near a navy base, or the shootings that persistently afflict Chicago. The most current estimate provided by the data firm Periscopic estimates that gun violence is responsible for at least 9,151 U.S. deaths in 2013. That’s on pace with the average from 2006-2010, of 9,571 gun-related murders per year. (And all of these numbers could represent vast underreporting.)

“One of the scariest things that children are seeing is late-breaking news without a parent there to guide them,” Michele Borba, an educator and bullying expert, said.

In the Highlights survey, half of participants said it was safer to play inside than outside, while only 42.5 percent said it was safe inside and outside. About 7.6 percent said outside was the safest place to play.

In one of the video interviews shown at the National Press Club event, a child describes his mother’s rule on nighttime play: ‘“My mom says don’t go outside at night sometimes because of crazy people.”

If perception of a problem drives policy, then the latter is not matching with children’s priorities. While states have successfully passed bullying laws in the past few years, especially legislation that includes cyberbullying, gun-control legislation has not fared so well. Some states did strengthen gun-control laws, but most safety legislation that successfully passed after the Newtown shooting involved school emergency-preparation plans. And Congress did not pass anything.

But if children really are the future, then maybe that will change.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.