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School Shootings are Less Likely than Asteroid Hits. No, You Don’t Have to Scare Your Kids.

When I picked up the Bangor Daily News this morning, I read columnist Sarah Smiley insisting that she “had to tell” her children about last week’s school shooting incident in Newtown, Connecticut. Adults absolutely have the right to feel the way they want to feel about the shootings in Connecticut. But do we “have” to tell our kids? “Have” to make them cry? “Have” to make them scared and change the way they see the world? No, we don’t, because our children are not at a significant risk.

Look at the statistics, the actual numbers describing how incredibly rare violent school deaths are. See this table from the National Center for Education Statistics for context. Since the statistics started to be tracked in 1992, there has not been a single year in which the number violent school deaths have risen to even 40 for the whole nation.

Number of Homicides at School, 1992-2010

The death of 40, 30, 20, 10 or 2 children is indisputably sad. But in-school violent deaths are very, very rare. Compare those numbers to the number of children killed outside of school:

Number of Homicides In and Out of School, 1992-2010

Consider how many school-aged children there are in the USA — about 53.9 million in 2009-2010, according to the Census Bureau. Now do the math. In the most recent year with available data, 2009-2010, 17 children died of school violence in the USA. That’s about 3 deaths for every 10 million children: a 0.00003% chance for any one child. Let’s imagine that the 20 slain children in Newtown are unusual, bringing the typical 20 or so violent school deaths of children per year to 40 for 2012. That would raise the share to about 7 deaths for every 10 million children: a 0.00007% chance for any one child.

U.S. Homicides In and Out of School, Compared to the U.S. School-Age Population, 1992-2010

There is no reason to make a child cry in fear over an event that has a 0.00003% to 0.00007% chance of happening to them. Disagree? Then you’d better warn your kids about asteroid 2012 VE77, which according to NASA scientists has a 0.0009% chance of smacking into the Earth between 2033 and 2035. Let’s be realistic — you are not going to weep in bed and then go tell your kids about the asteroid and make them cry. So why should you weep in bed and then go tell your kids about another risk that is even more remote?

You have the right to feel the way you want to feel. You have the right to scare your children if you feel like scaring them. But no, there is no reasonable sense in which you “have to” scare them in order to be a responsible parent. It’s unfortunate that Smiley suggests otherwise.

6 thoughts on “School Shootings are Less Likely than Asteroid Hits. No, You Don’t Have to Scare Your Kids.”

  1. Gerrit Holl says:

    It would be interesting to see on the same graph how many children die in traffic accidents. That’s probably at least an order of magnitude higher than the total homicides.

  2. JeffD says:

    Looking at the graphs it appears that tighter gun controls aren’t necessarily needed to protect our kids. Homicides in that group has been dropping anyway.

  3. Cain says:

    the numbers would be 0.0000003% and 0.0000007%. Which is 100 times less likely than the numbers given. Thought they looked a little out of sorts.

    1. Jim Cook says:

      Cain, are you sure about that? I checked my math — are you accounting for the percent sign? A percentage takes off two decimal points from the right-hand side.

  4. cain says:

    I stand corrected. Been looking at business math, college math, and surveying all week.

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