Inventing a crisis
Students are demonized, budgets are ravaged, and parents are terrified by news coverage of rare school violence
Last week, a drill was staged at Sparks High School against the possibility of a school shooting.
The news coverage of the drill, like the coverage of past school shootings, was full of exciting footage and emotionally loaded terms. But also like the coverage of school shootings, not one single report put the story in any context for alarmed parents and students.
Statistically, of all the places children frequent, school is the safest—far safer than the home. As many children die every two or three days at the hands of parents or guardians as died at Columbine High School in 1999. More than 3,000 children die from gunfire every year—but fewer than 50 of those killings happen in school. Nearly all children who are murdered are killed not by other children but by adults. None of this was reported in mainstream news reports after Columbine, after last month’s Minnesota school shooting or after last week’s drill at Sparks High School.
But because most murders of children are common and routine, they don’t receive the kind of heavy and emotional news coverage given to the uncommon and freakish school shootings. The exception is treated in journalism as the real story, and because the coverage lacks context, in the public’s mind, the exception becomes the norm.
And there is a public-policy consequence to the magnified coverage of school violence—money is drained away from hard-pressed programs in order to turn schools into armed camps, and students find it harder to get an education.
School violence has been in a steady decline for more than three decades, dropping to such low levels now that it is not statistically measurable in some indexes. It’s a remarkable success story, rarely told, though it appears in studies and statistics from numerous organizations like the FBI, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Justice Policy Institute, National Center for Education Statistics, National School Safety Center, and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
Even—perhaps especially—the most heavily covered incidents mislead the public.
Of Columbine, for instance, most of what was learned through news coverage, including even the location (it didn’t happen in Littleton), was inaccurate. Salon’s Dave Cullen later wrote of the student shooters, “They were never part of the Trench Coat Mafia. They didn’t target jocks, minorities or Christians. They had a hit list, but nobody on it was hit.”
For those who try to keep the public informed on the actual level of school violence, news coverage is maddening.
The Justice Policy Institute, for instance, has tried valiantly to bring some perspective to the issue of school violence, issuing a report after Columbine titled School House Hype. It seemed to have little impact, so the center did a follow-up report, School House Hype Two Years Later. Among its findings:
“During the 1998-1999 school year, the year that included the Columbine shooting, the National School Safety Center reported that there were 26 school-associated violent deaths—a 40% decline from the previous year. Since there are 52 million students in America’s schools, the odds of dying a violent death in a school in America last year was one in two million.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1993 and 1997, reports of physical fights by students declined 14%, reports of students being injured in fights declined 20%, the number of students who self-reported carrying a weapon in the previous 30 days declined 30%, and there was a 25% decline in students who had carried a gun to school in the previous 30 days.
“A joint study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and National Center for Education Statistics found that between 1993 and 1997, the number of school crimes declined 29%, the number of serious violent crimes declined 34%, the number of violent crimes (including fighting) declined 27%, and the number of thefts declined 29%.
“The FBI reported that since the historical peak for juvenile homicides in 1993, the number of juvenile arrests for homicide have dropped 56%, and the number of youth arrested for murder under age 13 is at its lowest point since the statistic was first kept (1964).”
Even minor incidents, such as the occasional and rare instance of a student being found in possession of a gun, are covered as though they were major news stories.
Washoe County School District spokesperson Steve Mulvenon has often been so exasperated by overblown news coverage of school violence that he has considered refusing to do any more interviews with reporters on the subject. But he keeps doing them: “I guess I need to keep putting the message out there on each one of these incidents, that it is an aberration, that it is unusual.”
“A violent incident could happen in any school at any time,” he says. “No one is immune. But the likelihood … is fairly remote. These sorts of violent incidents at schools that garner all the media attention are few and far between. And on a national basis as well as here locally, we’ve seen a fairly steady decline in serious incidents of violence.”
He doesn’t question the need for vigilance.
“There’s a need for our police and other law enforcement to keep their skills up and have good plans, and that’s what they were doing yesterday [Thursday]” at Sparks High.
But he says when he has tried to to provide context for reporters, they’ve been resistant. And even when they’re sympathetic, he says, they still can’t resist the allure of the same old kinds of reports.
“But I’ll tell you, on the … anniversary of Columbine, everybody was re-running that same videotape.”
The extraordinary rarity of incidents of school violence is neatly illustrated by statistics from 1997, when school shootings in Pearl, Miss., and West Paducah, Ky., were covered with the white-hot intensity of a presidential assassination. In that year, according to the Justice Policy Center and the National Climatic Data Center in North Carolina, 88 people died by being struck by lightning—about twice as many as died on school grounds.
University of Nevada, Reno journalism professor Jake Highton says instruction in providing context is not always given in reporting classes.
“But I do stress often the need to do homework before interviewing and doing stories. … They do not want history. They are writing stories on deadline.”
Highton says Richard Bryan, a former Nevada governor and U.S. senator, often complained that reporters who covered him weren’t up to speed on the issues they questioned him about.
Because of perceptions communicated by news coverage, school and other officials have been forced to respond to public concern, distorting spending priorities, and many programs have suffered as a result. An Oregon sheriff’s department dropped a school anti-drug program and replaced it with a school violence drill program. Many school districts, particularly in smaller communities, started expelling and suspending students at several times the rate of inner-city schools in large cities.
African-American students became particular targets. In Phoenix, black students were suspended and expelled at 22 times the rate of white students. And the removals from school generate further problems, such as suspended students never returning and health and safety dangers faced by students on the street or at home. And students generally are demonized because of the lack of context in news coverage of violent incidents.
Privacy protections for students have been eroded, huge sums have been poured into security systems and new guards or school police and armaments, expensive prevention and response plans have been prepared, schools have become adjuncts of the criminal-justice system—all to respond to extremely atypical incidents. In some jurisdictions, this drains money that would otherwise go to more traditional education spending, and students end up less prepared for testing, college or work.
One Reno television station’s news “tease” of its report of the Sparks High drill last week said, “It’s a question schools around the country are asking themselves—could they be the next Columbine?”
But in fact, a survey by Metropolitan Life indicated that 86 percent of teachers and 89 percent of students and law enforcement said that they thought their local schools were safe.
The tease question is being asked mostly by journalists—and the parents they alarm.