As I noted yesterday, the latest report on school violence from the Bureau of Justice Statistics has been released. As the data in that report show, the in-school homicide rate in 2010-2011 was 0.00002%; in other words, a child’s chance of being killed in school during that year was 1 in 4.5 million.
To get a sense of the scale of just how big 4.5 million is (and therefore just how small 1 chance in 4.5 million is) try counting to 10 at the rate of one number per second. 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 … 6 … 7 … 8 … 9 … 10. Now imagine continuing to count at this rate, one number a second. It turns out that if you never stopped, never slept, never paused, not even to eat or drink, you’d have to keep counting for 52 days straight in order to reach 4.5 million. That’s how big 4.5 million is, and that’s why 1 out of 4.5 million are such vanishingly small chances for an event to happen to any person.
It is awful that 11 children were killed in schools in the United States during the 2010-2011 school year, the latest year for which a full count has been compiled. It is awful every time a child dies. But let’s put those numbers in perspective. There were 49,484,181 children enrolled in K-12 school in the United States in the 2010-2011 school year (see p. 6 of that BJS report). Meanwhile, at roughly the same level of risk as child in-school murders (see this CDC report), there were 6 tuberculosis deaths, 12 deaths from rheumatic fever, 2 deaths from malnutrition, 12 deaths from the flu and 23 deaths from psychoactive drug use among 5-14 year olds. Where is the outrage at the scale of the school-shooting outrage? It isn’t there — even though these deaths could have been prevented through more diligent vaccination, through better nutrition programs, and from more active social work.
We don’t have to stay at that scale of death for America’s kids. There are many kinds of child death that are more common. in 2010 251 children aged 5-14 died in drowning accidents — that’s 23 times as many deaths (and remember, we’re not even counting the 15-18 year olds by comparison here). Where is the national outrage? In 2010 916 kids aged 5-14 died of cancer — 83 times toll from school shooting deaths. Where is the national outcry about those deaths? 267 kids aged 5-14 — 25 times the amount of school shooting deaths — committed suicide. Do we have confiscation of all sharp objects in school as a result? If we’re going to worry about the murder of children in particular, we could worry about the murder of children that happens outside of school. In the 2010 calendar year, 274 children aged 5-14 were murdered in the United States. If 11 or so of those were murdered in school, you do the math and tell me whether we should be worried about in-school shootings or out-of-school violence.
Given all of the various counts above and the context of the actual risk for school murder of 1 in 4.5 million, the petitioning demand of Pittsburgh-area parent Cathryn Schultz appears out of proportion:
“My child is at risk of something like this happening. What can we do to keep our children safe, and ensure weapons like knives and guns are not brought into school by someone planning to hurt other people?
“The answer is install METAL DETECTORS. We realize there is much cost involved, and students may initally be confused by having to go through them every day, but the bottom line is THEY WILL SAVE OUR CHILDREN’S LIVES.”
End all caps. Why should schools shell out the money for anti-murder devices when the risk of school murder is so very, very small? The answer is that we’re responding to stories, and in response to stories we believe school shootings to be far more common than they are. According to a Gallup poll, 1/3 of American parents fear for their children’s lives when they are in school. Count to 3, taking one second for each number. 1 … 2 … 3. That took you 3 seconds. 3 seconds to 50 days: this is the ratio of the disproportion of our panic.
Some are taking advantage of the panic. In response to this sort of panic, longtime military contractor Hardwire Armor Systems LLC has started marketing bulletproof whiteboards to schools. Its 18×20 model is meant to be used as a standard handheld whiteboard, but features handles on the back and is designed to protect a teacher facing a school shooter from “multiple magazines of ammunition from handguns or shotguns without ricochet or injury.” The most basic 18×20 bulletproof whiteboards Hardwire offers costs $399 — $383 more per whiteboard than a standard whiteboard of the same size.
Schools are starting to buy Hardwire’s product. But is this extra expenditure in every classroom worth it? Hardwire says it is, and trots out testimonials from students like 9th grader Charlie Pritchard to provide hypothetical justification: “It’s good to know that if a gunman attacks our school that the students are able to protect themselves and one another.”
Hardwire Armor can say they’re moving into the school safety business because they love children so much — and maybe they do love kids; I’ve never met a Hardwire corporate executive, so I can’t say. But let’s remember that Hardwire is a limited liability corporation with the purpose of making profit. Let’s also notice Hardwire’s explanation to CNN and DelMarVa about why as a military contractor it decided to shift into the bulletproof-school sales market:
“with the U.S. military out of Iraq and scheduled to leave Afghanistan next year, his company started looking for civilian applications.
‘It’s a great peace dividend,’ said Tunis. ‘As the wars wind down we can take some of the technology and put it to work.'”
“With American military efforts dialed back in Iraq and Afghanistan, demand for Pocomoke City-based Hardwire’s products in combat zones has been drying up. The company had to pivot, and found an entry into the domestic market with bulletproof whiteboards…. “‘We’ve been through the upturn of a war and now things have downturned. At the same time, we can expect some of that is going to come back home,’ he said.”
As an old market dries up and military contracts shrink, the corporation is trying to develop a new market. Fear is the key.
People can try to tell me that the danger to their schoolkids is significant because they saw a story on the news. I can respond that they needn’t worry about school shootings and try to get them to count to 4.5 million. But let’s make this concrete in terms most people can understand: money. I’m not a wealthy man. I’ll be paying off student loans for years to come, and I’m no a spring chicken. But regardless, I’m confident enough in the small probabilities of school murders to put my money where my mouth is. I’ll make a $1,000 bet that not one teacher in the USA is going to be shot at in 2014 while holding a bulletproof whiteboard (unless they’re participating in a product demonstration). Not one. I’ll bet you $1,000. If I lose, I’ll give $1,000 to charity.
Here’s where I turn the tables: is there anyone who is willing to bet even $5 that a single one of these whiteboards being delivered to schools will stop a school shooter’s bullet? Anyone at all?
If you’ll make the bet, leave a comment. Everyone else, watch the comment section to see whether anyone who buys into (or benefits from) the school shooting hype is willing to back it up the hype with a teeny bit of cash.