October 3, 2006
The horrific news about school shootings in Colorado and Pennsylvania by crazy gunmen targeting young girls stoked parents' fears and prompted calls for tighter security.
"Some school administrators and security experts said that they were worried about a new pattern of violence for which schools were not well prepared--outside adults with grudges or suicidal urges entering schools--and that news coverage could inspire more crimes," The New York Times reported after the latest incidents. Some analysts even suggested that the rural, Amish school where the latest atrocity occurred was vulnerable because it lacked the guards and metal detectors now familiar at inner-city schools.
A good start would be to stop feeding our own prurient fascination with stories of child abductions and murders. It just can't be good for kids to grow up steeped in fear and voyeurism.
You can't blame parents and teachers for worrying, and for wanting to do everything they can to protect children from being targets of violence. But there is something amiss in our cultural response to these school-shooting stories.
Part of it is the circular relationship between the media frenzy around these dreadful events and the repeated incidence of the events themselves. Particular "copycat" crimes may or may not be prompted by media coverage. But certainly our general media obsession with sex and violence creates an unhealthy climate. I don't just mean the usual conservative critique of Hollywood, but the way the emphasis on violence, especially sexual violence, directed at young children seems to galvanize people. Calls for tighter security and harsher penalties go hand-in-hand with the lurid fixation on these ugly scenarios. Just look at disgraced Congressman Mark Foley--the other newsmaker of the week, along with the school shooters--who made the protection of children against sexual predators his particular cause, at the same time, it turns out, he was preying on Congressional pages.
We put kids on milk cartons, fingerprint them at the mall, and criticize parents and teachers for not being hypervigilant, always alert to danger. And still we live in a uniquely violent society. There must be a better way.
Several times recently I've heard parents of young children talk about their anxiety about protecting their children from the danger of kidnappers and sexual predators, whose numbers they assume have grown in recent years. Actually, the incidence of sexual violence against children is down from a generation ago. Yet such normal behavior as letting your kid walk to a park or a neighbor's house alone suddenly seems negligent. Increasingly, it seems safer to keep kids indoors, alone or with friends whose parents drive them over for planned, supervised play dates. Stay at home in front of your TV! That’s the message many people take from the news of random violence.
As Halloween approaches, there will be new calls for indoor parties at shopping malls to replace trick-or-treating, as part of the general call for safety.
Will metal detectors in rural schools, and a generation of children locked inside watching "America's Most Wanted," really make us a safer country?
I don't think so. The less kids know their neighbors the less safe they really are. After all, they can't be guarded and chaperoned all the time. Sometimes, you have to rely on your community to help keep you safe. A group of frightened, isolated people is not a safe environment for any of us. Technology also has its limits. Parents now have the ability to go online and check registries of sex offenders by zip code, and then fret about letting their kids out of the house for fear they will be abducted. But pedophile abductions of unknown children are exceedingly rare. And the sex offenders on the registry are a range of offenders--many never targeted children at all. What do we lose when we plan our lives around avoiding them?
It makes sense to have reasonable security measures to keep strangers from wandering into school buildings, but worries about violence have also had the consequence of creating a sick reaction to normal kid behavior. A second grader in my community brought a toy gun to his elementary school, and was arrested and hauled away in a squad car when teachers called the cops. The child was then suspended for a week. Giving kids the feeling that a seven year old can disrupt and terrify the adults who are supposed to be in charge can’t lead to a safe or stable environment.
We need to return to some sense of proportion about children and safety.
A good start, I think, would be to stop feeding our own prurient fascination with stories of child abductions and murders. It just can't be good for kids to grow up steeped in fear and voyeurism.
And then there's that very practical solution: gun control. If it weren't so easy for sickos like the shooter in Pennsylvania to get his hands on multiple weapons and rounds of ammunition--all of which he apparently acquired perfectly legally--it would be more difficult for him to murder five children in a sudden burst of psychotic violence.
Reducing access to firearms and reducing hysteria seem like the two best solutions to school violence.
The most comforting antidote to children's fears is a confident, loving adult who can switch on the light, look under the bed, and point out, reassuringly, that there are no monsters there. Yet Americans continue to barricade themselves indoors, telling stories around the glowing TV set of monsters stalking children and a world in which you can't trust anyone. The biggest danger is that by telling this story too often, we might make it come true.