The Sky Is Not Falling

Published: April 30, 2006

I read with interest the article: “Federal Report: School Violent Crime Rate Halved Since 1992” on the decline in K-12 school homicides in the January/February issue of Campus Safety. In the article, Bill Modzeleski from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools discussed the considerable drop in school homicides through the years. The data was collected with rigorous standards by professionals with experience in statistical analysis, giving us the chance to contrast comparable data pools over a long period of time.

Despite this very credible information, there continues to be confusion among school officials regarding the level of risk of school homicides in relation to other hazards. While there are many reasons for this confusion, one of the most disturbing is the tendency of some product and service providers to overstate the actual level of violence to drum up business.

For example, some “experts” claim all school shootings stem from bullying. Others lack any actual experience in the field yet are quick to predict specific types of terrorist attacks. There are also people who make alarmist statements in the media or at professional safety conferences to get a little face time.

While an effective marketing technique, there are ethical concerns about the misdirection of safety resources this misinformation causes. The “if it bleeds it leads” media mentality so prevalent in our nation is sidetracking the safety focus in America.

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Campuses Must Not Forget About Other Perils

Although we should not be lulled into a false sense of security regarding violence on campus, many experts believe school officials can get too narrowly focused on homicides and overlook other hazards that are just as serious. For example, five students died from heart stoppage in Atlanta-area K-12 schools in just one week a few years ago. Many schools spend significant amounts of time on lockdown drills and hundreds of thousands of dollars on security technology while they have not done CPR training for any of their staff or purchased automatic external defibrillators.

It is important that while we continue our efforts to reduce the number of school homicides and suicides, we remain focused on the all-hazards approach to safety. This will ensure other pressing issues are addressed, which, compared to acts of violence, result in more fatalities on school property.

Schools Should Be Realistic About Their Vulnerabilities

Gregory Thomas from Columbia University recently released a great little book called “Freedom From Fear – A Guide to Safety, Preparedness, and the Threat of Terrorism” (Random House). Thomas is a seasoned veteran of law enforcement and the fire service and takes a pragmatic approach. He shies away from the “we are all going to die” mentality that is sometimes expressed by those with ulterior motives, paranoid and panicky personalities or who are well intentioned but just misinformed. Thomas urges us to take a balanced and informed view of our vulnerabilities. There is risk to some extent everywhere, but the sky is not falling.

Another excellent book that works hard to get us past the hype is “Fear Less,” authored by Gavin de Becker. The writer does a good job of bringing us back down to reality on the issue of terrorism. A former Los Angeles Police Department captain, de Becker believes the public perception of the likelihood of any one person being a direct victim of a terrorist attack has been exaggerated by the media frenzy in recent years.

I put stock in the advice of respected safety experts like Thomas, de Becker and Modzeleski. Whether your arena is K-12 schools, institutions of higher education or our nation’s hospitals, be sure you are focused on all types of safety hazards rather than misled by the “chicken little” mentality so commonplace in our society.

An internationally recognized authority on campus safety and the author of 19 books on the topic, Michael Dorn is the senior public safety and emergency management analyst for Jane’s Consultancy. Dorn, a member of the Campus Safety Advisory Council, works with a team of campus safety experts to make campuses safer around the globe through Jane’s offices in nine countries. He can be reached

For the complete version of this article, please refer to the May/June 2006 issue of Campus Safety Magazine.

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