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It Still Isn’t a More Dangerous World for our Kids

Three and a half years ago, amid declarations from fellow parents around me that “It’s a more dangerous world out there for kids these days” and “It’s just different from when we grew up,” my first-grader came home from school informing me that they’d had a “lockdown” drill at his elementary school to practice in case a gunman came to terrorize the place. There were no doors at my son’s school, so the children practiced hiding in corners under coats and not moving, just in case the bad man was gunning for them.

No gunman ever came to my son’s school, even though it was right smack-dab in the middle of the “dangerous” inner-city. But my son was scared by the drill, and we had to spend some time talking it out. It wasn’t necessary for the school to frighten my son; looking at the long-term trend between the 1970s (the “safe” years that my generation of parents waxes on about) and 2004 (the last year for which data was available in 2006), it became clear that the 1970s were actually more dangerous for kids. It’s parents’ perceptions that have changed. My generation of parents has become driven by fear into restricting the freedom of children.

With years passing on, I thought it would be prudent to take another look.

ChildTrends Data Bank posts historical data in violent criminal victimization of children aged 12-19:

Their data comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual report, Criminal Victimization. This report presents results from the National Crime Victimization Survey. ChildTrends DataBank stopped graphing results with the year 2005, but data is now available for 2006, 2007, and 2008 as well. If we extended the graph to incorporate the new data, it would look like this:

Violent Crime Victimization Rate of Adolescents, 1975-2005

Crime visited upon children is down since the 1970s, not up.

(In case you think I’m ignoring younger children as some kind of statistical trick, let me reveal that the National Crime Victimization Survey only interviews people aged 12 and older. Here’s a peek at data for children overall that unfortunately isn’t available back into the 1970s: according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports for 2008, there were 1,494 people under the age of 18 killed in the United States, out of 59,496 million people aged 0-18. That’s roughly one out of every 40,000 kids. Breathe easy and start worrying about peanut allergies.)

Let’s go back to school. The Bureau of Justice Statistics also maintains an annual report called Indicators of School Crime and Safety. Unfortunately, this report doesn’t date back into the 70s, but I can share some information with you from the latest available 2009 report (which reports on the 2007-2008 school year):

The total number of children enrolled in school from pre-K to 12th grade in the 2007-2008 school year was 55,579,330. That’s 55.6 million children, for the comma-challenged among us. Of those 55.6 million children, 21 children were murdered while in school and 5 committed suicide while in school. The odds of child being murdered in school during the 2007-2008 school year was 1 in 2.6 million. The odds of a child killing him- or herself in school during the 2007-2008 school year was 1 in 11.1 million. 26 dead children is sad, but from a policy point of view for any school it is nonexistent: for a school of 500 children holding all else equal, the chance of a murder in the school during that year was not 1 in 10, not 1 in 100, not 1 in 1000 — it was less than 2 in 10,000.

People, do we really need to be conducting drills teaching 1st graders how to hide under their coats and not move when the gunman comes to shoot them? If the purpose of such a drill is to get an adrenaline high out of scaring little kids, then the answer is yes. If you get a kick out of frightening young people into submission and are looking for an excuse, then hell yes, this is your big chance. But if the purpose of such a drill is to accomplish anything realistically positive, then the answer is no.

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