Dangerous schools?

Once again in Cleveland, that all too familiar tremor of fear. Four young students are arrested. A friend of theirs says the boys laughed about the shooting fray at Columbine High and planned to emulate it at Cleveland's South High School. Maybe they were joking, maybe not. The city authorities say they will take no chances.

Funny thing. Sensational shootings in schools in the recent past have left us with an impression of rampant violence and pervasive fear of violence among teenagers. Yet statistics tell a different story.

"Counterintuitive," I think you call that.

FBI statistics show that the crime rate in the US declined 6.4 percent and the murder rate 7.4 percent last year. We haven't seen crime rates that low since the 1960s. And a Gallup poll says that, 40 years ago, 50 percent of Americans reported having guns in their homes. Last year, the figure was 35 percent.

Ask kids, as a New York Times/ CBS poll did, if they worry about being crime victims at school or in the streets, and 24 percent say yes. Five years ago that figure was 40 percent. Ask kids if they personally know someone who has been shot, and 34 percent say yes. Five years ago that figure was 40 percent.

As James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor, notes, with about 48 shootings a year among 50 million kids in school, an individual's chances of running into violence "are literally 1 in a million."

Television, by its emphasis on violence, makes the risk seem much greater.

The Atlanta Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports on violence as a health hazard - which it surely is - has some numbers that support the impression of declining violence.

Between 1991 and 1997, students reporting they had been in physical fights decreased by 14 percent, those injured down 20 percent, those carrying guns down 30 percent.

Ask kids if the shooting at Columbine High School could happen in their schools, and 52 percent say yes. But ask them how safe their schools are, and 87 percent say somewhat to extremely safe.

Which all seems to mean that violence in schools is not as threatening as would appear from dramatic incidents magnified by the media.

Sorry about all the numbers, but I thought you would like to know the moderately good news.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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