"It's going to change the way we look at things," a security consultant told Fox's Megyn Kelly on the day of the Newtown elementary school massacre. America's schools will need armed guards, "perimeter security, CCTV, preventative issues with the school psychiatrist [and] police department ... " Newtown, he summed up, "is going to be for schools what 9/11 was for airports."
Let's hope not. If the reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School is anything like the reaction to Sept. 11, we're in for a decade or more of frantic overreaction and wasteful, destructive policies based on the false promise of perfect safety.
It's only natural that parents hugged their kids tighter this weekend, and sent them off to school on Monday with more anxiety than usual. So it ought to be comforting to learn, as Daniel Gardner points out in his terrific 2008 book The Science of Fear, "kids are far safer inside school walls than outside." The evidence compiled in the federal government's annual survey, Indicators of School Crime and Safety, consistently shows that "a student's risk of being murdered in school was de minimis — so tiny it was effectively zero."
The latest edition (2011) of that report 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." In terms of child fatalities, both the backyard pool and the family car are far more dangerous than the classroom.
In 2010, the journal Education Researcher put the problem in perspective with an article called "What Can Be Done About School Shootings? A Review of the Evidence." Per the authors' back of the envelope calculation, "any given school can expect to experience a student homicide about once every 6,000 years."
Students' risk of suffering from panic-fueled policy choices is considerably greater. As Gardner notes, after the Columbine massacre, "zero tolerance" policies proliferated and "the term 'lockdown' moved from prison jargon to standard English as it became common to conduct drills in which students imagined armed maniacs in the halls. Money shifted from books and maintenance to metal detectors, cameras, and guards."
There may be worse to come. On Sunday, Matt Drudge — always quick to highlight the latest Transportation Security Administration atrocity — charged that the "Obama administration let school security funds lapse." Apparently, we need more federal funding to armor up our schools, despite the vanishingly small risk. This sort of political point-scoring is an excellent way to transform public education into a 12-year shuffle through a giant TSA security line. But the resulting environment is no way to raise independent, free-thinking citizens.
That same evening, the Washington Post's left-leaning "Wonkblog" ran a feature asking, "What would 'meaningful action' on gun control look like?" From Wonkblog's account, it looks like a Brady Campaign wish list — background checks, a renewed assault weapons ban, waiting periods — no item of which would have prevented Adam Lanza's killing spree.
The American Conservative's Alan Jacobs argues that "the same warning against implementing policy decisions based on vivid, but very unlikely events applies to the people who are claiming that the answer to school massacres is arming our teachers" Jacobs predicts that "within a few years more people would be killed by teachers who fired their weapons accidentally or in misplaced anger or fear, or by students who stole their teachers' guns, than have ever been killed in school massacres."
Of course, the horror of Newtown will "change the way we look at things." But we shouldn't let it change our ability to assess risk — and to think before we legislate.