Post-Columbine Syndrome

School safety is on the rise, while administrative common sense declines.

By Dave Kopel & Linda Gorman, Independence Institute

5/08/00 5:20 p.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on school safety.

Psychologists have found that people consider an event more likely when instances of it are easy to imagine or recall. Given the saturation coverage of school violence since the Columbine shootings, it comes as no surprise that the number of people who fear for their children's safety at school has risen dramatically. According to a Washington Post poll conducted last November, 60% of surveyed adults felt that "children in America are no longer safe at their own schools." The good news, though, is that schools are actually safer than they used to be.

According to the National School Safety Center, there were 26 violent deaths at school during the 1998-99 school year, including the 13 at Columbine. That's half as many as in 1992-93, when 55 people were killed on school property. With roughly 52 million people enrolled in U.S. public schools, the chances of dying a violent death at a government school are about one in two million.

And at non-government schools — where discipline is stronger, and students more motivated to be there — fatalities are very, very, very rare.

How about non-fatal crimes? A joint report from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice found that there were 102 crimes against students per 1,000 students in 1997. This was down from 144 such crimes in 1992. These figures include non-violent crimes, such as a student's calculator being stolen surreptitiously. The report shows that the percentage of students who reported carrying a weapon on school property fell from about 12% in 1993 to 8.5% in 1997. Weapons threats, physical fights, and instances of bullying have remained constant since 1992.

One reason that your child is safer in school today than in 1992 is that school administrators have been more conscientious about cracking down on violent crime and violent threats at school.

Unfortunately, too many school administrators seem unable to tell the difference between normal behavior and crime. For example, using "zero tolerance" as an excuse to display zero intelligence, school officials have arrested teenagers on a bus for felony "assault" because the peanuts they were throwing at one another happened to hit a bus driver, have suspended kindergartners for using finger guns on the playground, and expelled an honor student for having a pocket knife in a first-aid kit locked in a car.

Another sign of the decline in common sense regarding school safety is the widespread use of a new psychological computer profiling program, from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The program will intensify the persecution of students who don't into some BATF bureaucrat's definition of "average" behavior.

In the Columbine case, long before the murder spree began, the killers had committed a felony by breaking into a car to steal property, and had made detailed death threats both in person and on the Internet. If sheriffs and schools are too obtuse to address such obvious dangers, then all the computer programs in the world won't help.

What's the best way to address the rare, but horrifying crimes of attempted mass murder at public schools? Many lives were saved in Pearl, Mississippi and Edinboro, Pennsylvania, when adults used their lawfully-owned firearms to stop school murder sprees in progress. Making it illegal for law-abiding, trained, caring teachers to possess firearms at school is simply an invitation for punks like the Columbine duo to attack people with impunity. Gun ban advocates should put aside their ideology, and allow responsible teachers — with proper training and strict safety regulations — to possess firearms to protect themselves and their students.

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