116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In the message, the caller's voice was thick with emotion. She wanted to answer a question I'd asked in last week's column. Namely: Why are people getting so worked up about the idea of having schools serve as polling places?
“There are people out there who would try to hurt kids,” she said.
She didn't leave her name, but I'm betting she spoke for a lot of people who, without hesitation and with only the greatest of intentions, would support any change in policy, practice or facility on the off chance it would make kids safer. Can you blame them?
But it's fear, not facts, that tempts us to turn our schools into so many Fort Knoxes, walled off from the surrounding community. Fear tells us it's better to be safe than sorry. Facts tell us our kids already are, overwhelmingly, safe.
First, the fact is that the threat of school violence is low and has been steadily falling over the past 20 years. During the 2010-11 school year, 11 of this country's roughly 55.5 million pre-K through high school students were killed at school or while attending or traveling to or from a school-sponsored event, according to the 2012 Indicators of School crime and Safety released last month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and National Center for Education Statistics. That's 11 too many, but it's down from 19 the year before, and equal to roughly one-third the average school-related homicide rate through most of the 1990s.
Serious violent incidents - including rape, sexual battery, physical attack or fighting involving weapons or the threat of the same - were also down to 4 or 5 per 1,000 students. That's a fraction of the violence experienced by students a generation ago.
Second, the tiny fraction of students who do suffer violence in school nearly always are victims of their peers. The Safe School Initiative, created in response to the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, took a hard look at 37 incidents of targeted school shootings and school attacks in the U.S. from 1974 through May of 2000. In the incidents they studied, all but two of the attackers were currently enrolled at the school. That pattern has held true in the few violent school events we've experienced so far in this millennium.
The idea that our schools are becoming more dangerous simply isn't borne out by the facts; the threat posed by outsiders is minuscule - the barest fraction of an already blessedly small number.
Pulling polling places from schools may feel like a good idea, but the facts simply don't back it up.
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