Newtown: A “9/11 for Schools”?

…That’s what a security consultant told Fox News’s Megyn Kelly last week on the day of the Newtown elementary school massacre. We’ll need armed guards, “perimeter security, CCTV, preventative issues with the school psychiatrist [and] police department…” and the whole panoply of items his firm recommends. Newtown, he summed up, “is going to be for schools what 9/11 was for airports.”
In my Washington Examiner column this week, I warn that “If the reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School is anything like the reaction to September 11, we’re in for a decade or more of frantic overreaction and wasteful, destructive policies based on the false promise of perfect safety.” The fact is, as I point out in the column, school is one of the safest places your child can be. In terms of child fatalities, both the backyard pool and the family car are far more dangerous than the classroom. The federal government’s annual report on school violence, Indicators of School Crime and Safety notes that ”over all available survey years, the percentage of youth homicides occurring at school remained at less than 2 percent of the total number of youth homicides.”  As Daniel Gardner puts it in his 2008 book The Science of Fear, year upon year, ”a student’s risk of being murdered in school was de minimis – so tiny it was effectively zero.”   Granted, it certainly doesn’t feel de minimis, after last week’s sickening events.  It even feels callous to put the risk in perspective.  But parents shouldn’t be told their children aren’t safe, and legislators shouldn’t rush to pass laws based on that fear.  In The Science of Fear, Gardner explains that “One of the most consistent findings of risk-perception research is that we overestimate the likelihood of being killed by the things that make the evening news and underestimate those that don’t.” The “rare, vivid, and catastrophic killers” we see on 24-hour-cable news engage our primate “fight or flight” hardwiring, override our rational faculty, and tend to make us “probability blind.” But, Gardner argues, “probability blindness is itself dangerous. It can easily lead people to overreact to risks and do something stupid like abandoning air travel because terrorists hijacked four planes.” And it often, as David Boaz suggests below, spurs legislative panics that leave us no safer, but poorer and less free.