School Homicides – Perception vs. Reality

Posted: July 3, 2013 in Policing, Research, Violence
Tags: , , , ,

In recent years, school shootings have significantly ratcheted up both the fear and rhetoric about student safety. While each incident is a tremendous tragedy, the extensive media coverage of the aftermath creates additional fear and makes it seem that every student and school in America is under attack.

But, are  such fears warranted, or are they simply an example of a media-driven perception bias that skew our views of the real dangers?

School bar

In June 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released figures about violent deaths in schools during the 2010-2011 school year. According to the report, 25 students, staff, and nonstudents died as a result of school-related violence (an additional 6 died of suicide).

To put that into context, during 2010, a total of 1,934 school-aged children (5-19 years old) died from homicides in the US. And, in 2011, 2,093 school-aged children were killed (PDF). Over 1,800 of those homicides from 2010 involved children aged 15-19 years. For this group, homicide is second only to accidents as a cause of death.

CDC   Five Leading Causes of Deaths Among Persons Ages 15 19 Years   National Statistics   Youth Violence   Violence Prevention   Injury

So, violent assault resulting in homicide is indeed one of the leading causes of death for children, but schools are among the least likely places for that to occur. In other words, schools are havens of safety in most instances.

More concerning might be the fact that, according to the same BJS report above, over 500,000 kids are violently victimized at school each year. Considering, though, that there are over 42 million school-aged children in the US, and that they spend 6-8 hours together a day in school, a 1% victimization rate is not that surprising.

The bottom line, however, is that the vast majority of childhood deaths occur away from school.

When we consider, for example, that in 2011 over 1,500 children died as a result of abuse or neglect, and more than 7,100 died in accidents (PDF), it’s surprising that more attention isn’t paid to the need for parenting skill training or safety training, or other similar interventions.

Instead, we wind up in debates over whether we should spend billions of dollars to put armed officers into every school in America, or whether school teachers should be armed.


Every death of a child is tragic – and we should do whatever we can to protect children from harm – but we also need to respond in ways that reflect the actual risks involved, not simply based on our collective cognitive biases generated by sensationalized media reporting.

What are your thoughts?

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