UNH prof. reassures parents: School violence is declining
That's the first piece of advice University of New Hampshire professor David Finkelhor has for parents dismayed by Friday's tragedy. Finkelhor has been studying national school violence for the past 25 years.
He said the news that 20 children and six adults were fatally shot at a Newtown, Conn., Elementary school on Friday morning is deeply disturbing, but it is not an indication that schools are unsafe.
"It's shocking, and it's not just shocking because of the damage it causes to the victims and families who are directly affected, but it's upsetting because it causes harm to everybody in the country and maybe in the world, because it strikes fear in people's hearts, and they somehow think that schools are dangerous places, that kids are at risk, and it just generally increases the level of fear and suspicion that exists in society as a whole," said Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at UNH.
We need to resist the urge to let the fear take over, he said.
"People have to be careful not to overdo their preoccupation with this particular event. It's a very rare and unusual and extreme event. It is not a sign that kids are at risk or that society is becoming more dangerous for kids," Finkelhor said.
On a whole, trends in school violence have been coming down, he said.
In 2010, the last year with accurate data, 17 children were killed in school shootings, out of the 1,500 children murdered that year.
When 5-year-olds are murdered, 90 percent of the time it is by somebody in their family, and even then they are at a low risk of homicide, Finkelhor said.
But this may come as small consolation to concerned parents. Finkelhor offered some recommendations for how parents can help their children, and themselves, deal with the bad news.
He suggested that parents turn off the television so children are not bombarded by images of the tragedy. Parents should also reassure their children that their schools remain very safe places to be, with staff well-trained in keeping students safe.
"In a way, I do think parents need the same advice. They need to remind themselves that this is a very unusual event and there are 10,000 other things they should be more worried about in terms of risk to their children," Finkelhor said.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged, the question of how this could happen in an apparently safe school remains unanswered.
"We don't know the details yet, so we'll find that out," Finkelhor said.