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.
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:
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% probability 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% probability for any one child.
There is no reason to make a child cry in fear over an event that has a 0.00003% to 0.00007% probability 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% probability 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.