Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fear and loathing in the local schools

A front page story in yesterday's paper told of public school officials here in Mansfield, Connecticut (population about 20,000) conducting a security audit of the three elementary schools & the one middle school, and they are thinking of installing cameras or buzzers at the entrances of the schools. (The high school is run by a different jurisdiction). Why? "'It's unfortunate what we're faced with,' said one official, stating that the world is a much different place than it used to be." School officials pointed to school shooting earlier this year in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Wisconsin.

This kind of thinking plain wrong and it's harmful, and it's not limited to Mansfield.

Here are some facts.

According to the CDC, 6,755 children aged 5-14 died in 2004. Given that there are over 20,000,000 children (for a cool graphic) in that age range in the United States, that alone tells us that children lead, on average, pretty safe lives.

What do children die of? From the same data: Motor vehicle accidents are the number #1 killer (24% of the deaths), followed by cancer (15%), other accidents (15%), congenital malformities (6%), and suicides (4%). There were 385 homicides (6%), but only 39 of them took place at schools or on the way to or from school.

As such, students are about ten times more to be killed outside of school than within school. Do you want to keep your children safe? Send them to school!

So, our town wants to spend money to prevent something that happens annually to around 1 in one-half million children (40 / 200,000,000).

Certainly any killing of a child is a tragedy, so does that mean we should try to prevent it happening no matter how long the odds? Well, there are about 1,400 children in Mansfield elementary schools which means that we can expect, on average, one homicide in school or on the way to school about every four centuries (500,000/1,400).

Trying to prevent this every-few centuries event is problematic because any remedy programs will have their own costs. These rememdies have opportunity costs. Money spent on increased school security could be spent on educational needs, such as books, teachers, classrooms. It could also be spent on real safety issues, such as preventing motor vehicle accidents, drownings, or suicides.

They also have direct costs. The fear that they create results in social, psychological, and physical harm (e.g., isolation, nervousness, and high blood pressure).

As the Barry Glassner writes, it's not that we shouldn't be afraid, it's just that we're afraid of the wrong things.

I would much rather spend the money on books, teachers, and things with real benefits.


Kim said...

You note fear as a psychological impact. I worry as much about the destruction of trust. Maybe I'll change my tune when my kid becomes a teenager, but I think kids respond to trust with trustworthy behavior, and to distrust with untrustworthy behavior. What does it say to teenagers when we all but announce to them every day, when they walk through a metal detector on their way to class, that adults don't trust them?

Anonymous said...

Pesky statistics. Too rational. ;)

I'd be interested in how safe one is hang gliding vs. driving to the hang gliding site for 60 miles in Southern California.

The missus is the queen of this kind of irrational fear. Of course, her father's handyman (when they were growing up) is now on death row... and she got flashed on the way to school every day for about a year....


Andre said...

You note that we are trying to prevent that which occurs so rarely that it is hardly worth preventing. Well, "an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure." However, nothing is ever said about using an ounce of prevention when only a single drop is needed. It seems like overkill to essentially lock our kids into schools in the name of freedom. Speaking of freedom for children, I recently read about schools banning games such as dodgeball and tag because they are afraid that the kids will feel excluded or even get injured and their parents will sue the school. I personally find banning childhood games a ludicrous thing to do. I wonder what others' thoughts on such things are. Also, if we are to still desire to do something in order to prevent all school shootings, what can we do that does not show complete distrust of our children? (I use "our" very loosely here as I do not have any children of my own.)

Benjamin said...

Sometimes you make way too much sense Brad... which is probably why no one will listen and they will go forward with the plan anyway...

brewright said...

Kim, I think that you're absolutely right about about destroying trust.

John (JW), the driving is safer if, and only if, one is in a hot new sports car.

Andre, I heard about the dodgeball ban too. Pretty funny. I'm not sure that I have any helpful solutions for school shootings, more of a sense that there are other things to worry about more.

Ben, you're probably right that no one will listen, though I was talking to a friend and local teacher at the gym this morning, and he suggested that I send some of the stats to the school board. Maybe they really think that school shootings are a clear and present danger.