State of the state

Governor Gibbons’ message to the legislature contained so much that it is difficult to assess it whole in a short time. Moreover, many of the items addressed deserve hearings and debate before any conclusions are reached.

It is, however, possible to reach conclusions about two of the governor’s recommendations now.

Gibbons recommended that the state’s new programs for addicted gamblers be retained and funding increased.

For three-quarters of a century of legal gambling, Nevada politicians have embarrassed the state by pretending that no such problem exists. Finally in 2005, Gov. Kenny Guinn proposed a small state program to treat addicts, which the legislature created.

This is a priority whose importance will only grow as casinos beef up their programs of making up business lost to tribal casinos by shifting their marketing from tourists to target local customers. Gibbons’ funding increase comes at a good time.

The same can’t be said of his plan to throw more money down the school violence rat hole.

In the late 1990s, a spate of school shootings was reported in hysterical and exploitive fashion by journalists who failed to provide any context for their reporting. The satellite trucks would roll into towns like Pearl, West Paducah, Jonesboro and Springfield and crank out frenzied news coverage that failed to note how freakishly uncommon the shootings were, how safe schools are, and how school violence had been declining since the 1960s.

In one notable report at the height of the hysteria (Schoolhouse Hype, 1998), the Justice Policy Institute checked with the National Climate Data Center and discovered that twice as many people are killed by being struck by lightning each year as are killed on school grounds.

Soon, this irresponsible episode in journalism history had converted these exceptions into the norm in the public mind and politicians soon followed, diverting badly needed funds from academics to security systems, guards, armaments and so on—without affecting violence rates. They did enormous damage to the U.S. education system in order to “fix” already safe schools. And once they took those actions, entrenchment set in—politicians who made their names on the school violence issue and interest groups that lobby it became invested in it and prevented any reforms.

In the last two or three years, school systems across the nation have managed to slowly start turning this money back to academic spending. George W. Bush, of all people, has slashed unnecessary federal school violence prevention funding. But politicians and various interest groups continue demagoguing the issue.

Now Gov. Gibbons, overreacting to a shooting at Western High School in Las Vegas, has proposed an increase in money to deal with school violence.

There is going to be occasional violence on school campuses. But it has dropped to a level so low that it is difficult to measure in some standard statistical formulas. Last year’s Pine Middle School shooting incident in Reno was notable not just for itself but also for the fact that it was the first such incident in a Reno school in two decades, which did not get reported.

The Western High incident was typical of these occurrences—highly publicized but described by parents and school officials as a convenience store incident that spilled over onto a schoolyard. The governor’s panicky proposal should be ignored by legislators.