It's safe, very safe, to go back to school

August 24, 1999|By Shepherd Smith

PERHAPS the scariest place for a child to be the day that Columbine High School opened its doors for the new school year was in front of the television. Beginning with the morning news shows and continuing all-day on 24-hour news channels, into the evening news and concluding, mercifully, with "Nightline," experts queued up to mourn the death of safety in our schools. Any child who caught just a bit of the news reports could only conclude that it's dangerous to go to school.

The average adult, as well, has been lured into a false sense of insecurity about schools. What parent hasn't thought, in recent months, "My child's not even safe at school!"

You can't blame parents for such a doomsday attitude. After all, nobody's checking the quality of the data these so-called experts are spewing all over the airwaves. A recent MSNBC guest stated matter-of-factly that school violence is increasing. The interviewer didn't challenge the assertion. No warning crawled across the bottom of the TV screen, along the lines of: "The information being presented as fact by this guest may very well be false."

The reality is that, overall, school violence is decreasing. In fact, real data, the kind that is checked by peer reviewed journals, point out a surprising truth: school is a safe place to be a kid.

No matter how we measure it, school violence is on the decline and has been for several years. The Aug. 4 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reports on data from the 1991, 1993, 1995 and 1997 Youth Risk Behavior Surveys that reveal the percentage of high school students who engaged in violent behaviors.

Between 1993 and 1997, this respected journal reports, the percentage of students who carried a weapon on to school property dropped 28 percent, from 11.8 percent to 8.5 percent. The percentage of students who got in a physical fight on school property decreased 9 percent, from 16.2 percent to 14.8 percent.

Young people are involved in less violent behavior outside of school, too. Between 1991 and 1997, the percentage of students involved in a physical fight anywhere decreased 14 percent (from 42.5 percent to 36.6 percent) and the percentage of students injured in a fight dropped 20 percent (4.4 percent to 3.5 percent).

Hardly, an increase in youth violence on and off school grounds, despite what some experts will tell you. Indeed, when the U.S. Department of Education recently released "A Report on State Implementation of the Gun-Free Schools Act: School Year 1997-1998," state education officials noted that "students were getting the message that they were not to bring firearms to school."

In fact, a child is significantly less likely to be murdered in school than out of school.

Also, your child's not only physically safer at school, but also much less likely to be exposed to other unhealthy risk behaviors during school hours than perhaps at any other time of the day.

Teen-age sexual activity is almost always an after-school activity. And kids don't usually smoke in the school lavatory -- a study by the private anti-drug initiative, PRIDE, shows that school is the last place kids smoke, even trailing behind home. Alcohol and drugs are far more accessible after, than in, school.

So this fall, as your child heads off to school by bus, car, bike or foot, know that he or she is going to a very safe place, no matter what they tell you on television.

Shepherd Smith is founder and president of the Institute for Youth Development, a nonpartisan, non-profit Washington-based group.

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