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Focus on The Numbers
The Kid

Every year the media seems to distort statistical reality in a new way. When Professor Rita J. Simon researched the numbers behind violence against women, she realized that the main victims of violence in our society were young black males. VAGUEpolitix spoke to her about her findings in "HELP! HELP!!!!"

We also asked Vincent Schiraldi to write us a piece. A couple of years ago, when it looked like blacks were far more involved in drugs than whites, Schiraldi pointed out that the facts showed that blacks' and whites' use of illegal drugs were similar, but people of different races were treated very differently by the criminal justice system.

This year, he says, the biggest case of what statistician Alan Paulos once called "statisticide" has been the way politicians and media have handled school killings.

By Vincent Schiraldi
Director, Justice Policy Institute

The Kids Are Wild

During the last school year, the public was riveted by images of small-town schools taped off by police lines, paramedics wheeling adolescents away on gurneys and kids carted off in handcuffs. As the national news media zoomed in on Jonesboro, Arkansas, Springfield, Oregon, and other rural communities, news outlets began to describe these highly idiosyncratic cases as "an all-too-familiar story" or "another in a recent trend."

A kind of panic swept the country. Parents and children suddenly feared for their safety. Three-quarters of Americans reported that a shooting was likely in their school. A principal in Bethesda, Md. — a community that had recently experienced a 26% decline in juvenile crime — warned "it could happen anyplace."

But it doesn't happen anyplace. In fact, it rarely happens at all. The best data available from the Centers for Disease Control reveal that kids face less that one chance in a million of being killed at school. Young people report being assaulted in schools today at the same rate as in 1976.

Research by the National School Safety Center shows that there were 27% fewer school killings in the 1997-98 school year than in the 1992-93. Indeed, twice as many people were killed by lightning in 1997 as were killed in all of America's schools.

Hit By Lighning At School

Yet, last month when President Clinton's panel of school violence experts declared that schools are some of the safest places for children to be, the media gave the story tepid play compared to the saturation coverage they rained upon school shootings. The result has been an epidemic of misdirected legislation.

To remedy the purported "crisis" of classroom violence, politicians have proposed "solutions" that ignore the numbers and exploit voters' fears. A legislator in Arkansas proposed abolishing the minimum age at which juveniles could be tried as adults. The legislature in Texas proposed to expand the death penalty to 11-year-olds in response to the Jonesboro shooting. Gov. James Gilmore of Virginia suggested ending after-school programs due to the violence, even though a wide spectrum of criminologists, police and educators say such programs reduce crime.

Jail 'em

Concern among school administrators has reached such a fevered pitch that children are now being suspended from school for bringing butter knives to slice up bananas and making make-believe threats against the Spice Girls. A computerized search of the nation's newspapers turned up 216 school expulsions just in the months of May and June this year, compared with 22 in May and June of 1997.

There are many real dangers facing America's children. Our kids are killed by guns at 12 times the rate of children in other industrialized nations. But 99 percent of kids' deaths are away from school, and the peak times for such killings are evenings, weekends and vacation periods.

The recently publicized school shootings should provide a long overdue call to productively occupy our children after school hours and keep them away from handguns. But only if our elected officials listen to the numbers and look in the right place for solutions.

Related Information and Links:
Black Paranoia — Or Common Sense by Vincent Schiraldi
The following data are compiled by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice based on federal statistics (numbers are approximate):

  • Ratio of blacks to whites arrested for felonies: 5 to 1
  • Ratio of blacks to whites imprisoned under California "three strikes" rule: 13 to 1
  • Ratio of blacks to whites consuming illicit drugs: about even
  • Ratio of blacks to whites arrested for drug offenses: 5 to 1
  • Ratio of blacks to whites sent to prison for drug possession: 3 to 1

Media misleading on school shootings by Vincent Schiraldi

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