“Security was the number-one factor for me in choosing a school,” explained one of the mothers I met late last winter at a Montessori preschool in an affluent suburb of Salt Lake City. A quality-control expert at a dietary-supplement company, the woman said she vividly remembers the jolt of horror she felt when she first learned of the Columbine massacre in 1999. So when the time came to send her child to preschool, she selected one that markets itself not only as creative, caring, and nurturing, but also as particularly security-conscious.
To get the front door of the school to open, visitors had to be positively ID’d by a fingerprint-recognition system. In the foyer, a bank of monitors showed a live feed of the activity in every classroom. After drop-off, many parents would spend 15 minutes to half an hour staring at the screens, making sure their children were being treated well by their teachers and classmates. Many of the moms and dads had requested Internet access to the images, but the school had balked, fearing that online sexual predators would be able to hack into the video stream. All of the classroom doors had state-of-the-art lockdown features, and all of the teachers had access to long-distance bee spray—which, in the case of an emergency, they were instructed to fire off at the eyes of intruders. The playground was surrounded by a high concrete wall, which crimped the kids’ views of the majestic Wasatch Mountains. The imposing front walls, facing out onto a busy road, were similarly designed to stop predators from peering into the classrooms.
“I fear a gunman walking into my child’s school and gunning up the place,” the mother continued. (I have withheld her name, and that of the school, upon request.) “And I fear someone walking onto the playground and swiping a kid. And I fear an employee of the school damaging my child. These things happen more commonly than people expect.”
Actually, they don’t. Despite the excruciating angst suffered by this woman and so many other parents, school violence is a rarity in America. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 34 children in the United States were murdered while in school during the 1992–93 school year. From 2008 to 2013, the most recent years for which the NCES provides data, the average annual figure was 19. In recent decades, the numbers have waxed and waned, hitting 34 again in 1997–98 and going as low as 11 in 2010–11. Generally, the trend has been downward.
If one adds the deaths of teachers and other staff, as well as suicides by students during the school day, the numbers go up, of course. In the 20-year period covered by the NCES data, 2006–7 was the deadliest, with 63 violent deaths occurring in America’s schools. That is unquestionably 63 too many violent deaths, and for the families directly affected by the killings, it represents unfathomable—and inextinguishable—anguish.
But it isn’t quite the national epidemic that one might picture based on the vast media coverage these killings receive. In fact, far more children and young adults are killed on the impoverished streets of America’s large cities every year. By several orders of magnitude, far more kids die each year in car crashes or drowning accidents—or from asthma. And far more young lives are lost to a host of other diseases closely correlated with poverty.