Don't believe the hype
Why candidates exploit fears about school violence
by Ian Donnis
Hillary Rodham Clinton smiled frequently and sported a tasteful brown pantsuit
when she visited Cumberland High School earlier this week, but she might as
well have been wearing a fright mask. Basking in an exuberant reception from
hundreds of students gathered in the gym, Hillary quickly set to fanning fears
about school violence. "Except for war-torn places around our globe, we are
among the most violent of any societies," the first lady intoned. Speaking one
week after a 13-year-old was charged with shooting and injuring four classmates
at a middle school in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, she added, "Thirteen young people
die every day from gunshot wounds." By the time Hillary's rap session ended an
hour later, it was hard not to conclude that youth violence is pervasive and
In fact, despite the Columbine massacre and the relatively new phenomenon of
school shootings, the number of homicides by 14-to-17-year-olds has plummeted
in the last six years, according to figures from the Clinton administration's
own US Justice Department. And schools -- which have actually gotten less
dangerous during the same period -- remain a safer environment for kids than
the streets and even their own homes, according to the US Education Department.
But you're unlikely to hear Hillary or other candidates acknowledge this
reality, because it doesn't serve their political interests.
Although American society is violent, our concern about the impact of gunplay
varies sharply with the socioeconomic status of the victims. There were
relatively few outpourings of concern by politicians -- and little middle-class
hand-wringing -- when the crack epidemic of the late '80s and the widespread
availability of handguns sparked an unprecedented level of youth violence in
predominantly minority neighborhoods in Providence, Boston and other cities.
But Columbine, and the resulting wave of copycat threats, served notice to
suburban America that our kids might be in danger.
That's why, even at this early point in the campaign season, making at least a
token expression of protest about school violence is a staple for candidates on
the stump. Context remains the missing ingredient. As a longtime advocate for
children, Hillary surely knows better. But what she failed to mention about the
13 kids who die each day from gunshots is that they typically suffer the
violence not in schools, but on the streets of America's poorest
Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University, expects
rhetoric about school violence to intensify as the 2000 campaigns get going in
earnest. "Everyone wants to talk about school violence," he says. "It's a
subject that's very much on the minds of voters, but I haven't seen any spirit
of bipartisanship to try to grapple with the issues. Politicians are more
interested in scoring political points."
The average observer has good reason to be confused about this situation.
Violent crime has dropped sharply through the '90s in most cities, and
Americans are less likely to die from gunfire than at any time since the '60s,
the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November. But the
school shootings that started to erupt in recent years indicate deeper problems
in our culture and serve as a blunt reminder of how violence can flare
unexpectedly. The disproportionate amount of media attention given to these
attacks -- once again, without context -- results in an exaggerated sense of
menace and anxiety.
The December 6 shooting in Oklahoma, for example, was the most prominently
displayed story the next day on the front of the Providence Journal and
scores of other newspapers across the country. Prominently played on the
Journal's jump page were a box highlighting nine school shootings since
1997 and a story about the teenage boys who, after assaulting one counselor and
tying up another, fled a wilderness camp in Utah for troubled youths. Both
stories are legitimate, but without any perspective on the extent of teen
violence, the implicit message remains: the youth are out of control.
In reality, the frequency of homicides by 14-to-17-year-olds tripled from
1985 to 1993, from 10 per 10,000 people to 30 per 10,000, before dropping to 18
per 10,000 in 1997, according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice
Statistics. The overall rate of school-related crime for students, ages 12-18,
fell from 164 crimes per 1000 students in 1993 to 128 per 1000 in 1996,
according to the Department of Education.
It's telling that a random selection of Cumberland High students who spoke
with the Phoenix before Hillary's arrival expressed no concerns about
danger at school. "Generally, I think they've done a good job of making the
kids feel safe," said Jonathan Sun, a 16-year-old senior, in a typical
For her part, though, the first lady-turned-New York senate candidate tried
having it both ways, praising young Americans as "the best young people in the
world and probably the best we've ever had." But then she happily picked up the
thread when a student paraphrased one of his teachers and anxiously asked, "If
schools are this bad now, what will it be like in 10 years?"
If the threat of school violence is really as dire as Hillary suggested, one
wonders why her Secret Service detail focused their energy in searching the
camera bags of print and broadcast photographers, rather than in screening the
students from nine communities who were invited to the carefully choreographed
WHEN A Cumberland High junior decried the tendency of some teachers to ignore
bullying, Hillary instantly supported the notion that school discipline is a
thing of the past. "More teachers are feeling more and more powerless," she
groused. "Adults have to reassert authority . . . and young people have to be
supportive of that."
As any educator knows, however, Columbine changed the rules. While children
have issued threats for generations, usually without any real inclination
toward violence, there's probably not a principal in America now who will run
the risk of dismissing a youthful taunt for fear that the kid's going to come
back packing heat.
And as the New York Times recently reported, the national proliferation
of zero tolerance policies and harsher discipline for even relatively benign
forms of youthful behavior began with the Safe and Drug-Free School Act of
1994. The act mandated the loss of federal funds for any school that doesn't
expel a student found with a weapon.
The Columbine attack sparked copycat threats and anxiety at many schools in
Rhode Island and across the country. In Warren, the situation at Kickemuit
Middle School was no different. Eight students were suspended in May after
being identified as part of a group called the Scottish Mafia, but about half
were eventually found blameless of any wrongdoing. The suspension of one
12-year-old boy, who had been threatened with expulsion, was rescinded after he
was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Steve Brown, director of the ACLU's Rhode Island chapter, describes the
episode as representative of "a needless overreaction" that sparked dozens of
calls to the local ACLU after the Littleton shootings. Kickemuit officials
remain reluctant to talk in detail about the matter, but they defend their
handling of it as justified. "I'll err on the side of caution every day of the
week," says Paul Canario, who was the school's acting principal at the time.
Civil libertarians aren't alone in believing that overblown fears about school
shootings, combined with federal mandates, have sparked an overreaction in
punishing students. After holding steady for two years, the number of student
suspensions in Rhode Island jumped by roughly 8000, from 34,900 in 1997-98 to
42,800 in 1998-99, according to George A. McDonough, coordinator for safe and
drug-free schools at the state Department of Education.
"I'm guessing that right after Columbine, teachers at small elementary schools
who never had suspended anyone felt the need to take action, because someone
had written a note or gotten someone in trouble," McDonough says. "The majority
were not for drugs, weapons or even threats. A lot are for things that could
probably be corrected, like squeaking sneakers in the hall or being late for
Rather than criminalizing age-appropriate forms of student behavior, McDonough
advocates creating schools that are highly personalized -- where students are
well-known and advisers, mentors and after-school programs are widely
accessible. The need for these kind of efforts, particularly in an age when
children and parents spend less time together than in previous generations, is
all too clear. A study released earlier this year by the state Department of
Health found that 24 percent of the students surveyed had considered suicide
and 10 percent have attempted it.
It's these kind of indicators that worry observers like James Alan Fox, a
professor at Northeastern University in Boston who has advised the Justice
Department on youth violence. As Fox said during a speech at West Virginia
University in August, "The shootings in Jonesboro, West Paducah and Littleton
may be unusual and extraordinary, but they are the tip of a much larger iceberg
of anti-social behavior increasingly exhibited by children."
Citing the presence of 40 million children under the age of 10, more than at
any time since the original baby boomers were in school, Fox and other
criminologists have long warned that the next five years could make the youth
violence that accompanied the crack epidemic of the late '80s and early '90s
look rosy by comparison.
It's encouraging that many local educators recognize that it's the behavior,
not the appearance of students, that they need to be concerned with. As Warwick
School Superintendent Robert J. Shapiro says, "The fact is that thousands and
thousands of kids listen to Marilyn Manson and they're good kids." It's good,
too, that Cumberland and other school districts around Rhode Island, with help
from the US departments of Education and Justice, are recognizing the
importance of shrinking class sizes, adding after school programs and helping
to reduce the excess of idle, unsupervised time faced by too many young
It's these kinds of efforts, rather than exaggerated statements about the
current danger of American schools, that offer the best hope for preventing
increases in youth violence. As the November 2000 elections approach, Hillary
Clinton and other candidates would do well to put school violence in
perspective while working to enhance the safety of young people.
Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.