Authored by JaNae Briggs, Outreach and Prevention Case Manager
In researching for this blog topic, I found an article suggesting that there was a widely publicized survey comparing public school problems of the 1940’s with modern school problems. With some concern, a skeptical professor at Yale University, Barry O’Neill, investigated the origins of the lists and found that a wealthy oil businessman and fundamentalist Christian, T. Cullen Davis, constructed the list in 1982 as part of an effort to attack public education. When asked how he came up with the findings his response was, “How did I know what the offenses in the school were in 1940? I was there. How do I know what they are now? I read the newspapers”.
Although the lists were exposed as a hoax in 1994, they continue to be cited as factual today. The point of this observation is that all of us are susceptible to misinformation about school crime and violence. We must continue to be diligent and cautious about studies with bold claims and demand credible evidence from firsthand sources.
Although the school shootings stimulated new attention to the problem of school safety and brought about many positive changes in relationships between schools and law enforcement agencies, public perceptions are easily skewed by media attention to a handful of extreme cases. The school shootings frightened the public and generated a widespread belief that there was an epidemic of violence in our schools. As the facts presented here demonstrate, this epidemic was a myth. School violence did not increase in the 1990’s, it declined.
The Newtown shootings prompted nearly 90% of school districts in the United States to upgrade their security at a cost of approximately 5 billion dollars. Although high profile shootings in schools generate understandable concern, schools are objectively safe places with a very low rate of violent crime, including homicide. Statistically, the average school can expect a student to be murdered at school about once every 6,000 years.
Multiple studies have found that the additional school security measures do not substantially increase school safety and on the contrary often make students feel less safe at school. If school funds are used for security, it will cut into the funds available for teachers, mental health professionals, and prevention services. It brings up the question whether the sacrifice of student support and prevention services is worth the questionable value of security upgrades? Are we creating a false sense of security?
It is important to guard against fear-based perceptions of school violence. Policy decisions about school safety must be based on objective information. School administrators and policy-makers must maintain a rational and factual perspective on school safety.
There is a mistaken belief that we must be able to predict violence in order to prevent it. On the contrary, we can prevent problems without prediction if we take a public health approach. Public health programs have dramatically reduced lung cancer by preventing smoking. Automobile accidents are curtailed by traffic regulations, safer cars, and driver training. Real violence prevention cannot wait until there is a gunman at the door, but must start before problems escalate into violence. For examples, there are numerous controlled studies demonstrating that school-based counseling and violence prevention programs are effective at teaching students how to resolve conflicts and problems without resorting to violence. Prevention must begin early to be most effective.
We need a sea change in our approach to threats of violence. The police are hamstrung by an antiquated model which requires them to either arrest someone for a crime or determine that they are mentally ill and imminently about to harm someone. Most cases do not fit into either pigeonhole. Locking people up in a jail or a hospital to prevent violence is not the answer.
In case after case of mass shootings, we learn later that family members, friends, and even mental health professionals were concerned that someone needed help. Predicting violence is difficult, but identifying that someone needs assistance is not so difficult. This is where we need to readjust our focus and concentrate on helping people in distress.
Although we will never eliminate violence, effective prevention programs can do much to reduce its prevalence. We do not read in the news media about the people who threatened violence but were helped. Prevention is invisible to the public when it succeeds. In fact, there have been many successful cases, and we have likely prevented far more shootings than have occurred. We need more widespread use of a threat assessment approach in which we investigate threats more carefully and provide help for persons who are so distressed that they are threatening violence. We need mental health services more focused on anger and alienation, in addition to the traditional problems of anxiety and depression.
Finally, we need to improve the quality as well as the quantity of mental health services and focus on helping the larger population of people in distress rather than those fitting a narrow definition of mental illness.
Salt Lake County Youth Services has several services for teens 0-17 such as low to no cost mental health counselling and respite from an unsafe environment or situation. Family and crisis counseling are also available. For information or access to these services please call 385-468-4500.
Myths about School Violence, Dewey Cornell, University of Virginia
Gun violence and mass shootings — myths, facts and solutions, By Dewey G. Cornell June 11, 2014