Where’s the Real Risk?

The shootings in Connecticut have touched our raw emotions.  It’s absolutely horrible that someone would take the lives of children at their school.  So I want to start this by saying that I too am very sad that an evil act took these lives from this world.  I can’t understand why someone would do such a thing.  I also think it’s appropriate to grieve and to remember those who are still with us with refocused intensity.

One concern I have however is that in the discussions of gun control, mental health care accessibility, and school security – certainly issues that are important and should be discussed – is that we’ve lost fact of the real risks.

The CDC studies why Americans die and releases reports on exactly that.  For 5-9 year olds, the most common causes of death in 2009 (in the US) were:

  • Accidents (31%)
  • Malignant Neoplasms (19%)
  • Congenital Malformations, Deformations, and Chromosomal Abnormalities (8%)
  • Assault/Homicide (5%)
  • Influenza/Pneumonia (4%)
  • Diseases of the Heart (4%)
  • Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases (3%)
  • In Situ Neoplasms, Benign Neoplasms and Neoplasms of Uncertain or Unknown Behavior (2%)
  • Septicemia (1%)
  • Cerebrovascular Disease (1%)

For 10-14 year olds:

  • Accident (29%)
  • Malignant Neoplasms (13%)
  • Intentional Self-Harm/Suicide (8%)
  • Assault/Homicide (6%)
  • Congenital Malformations, Deformations, and Chromosomal Abnormalities (5%)
  • Influenza/Pneumonia (4%)
  • Diseases of the Heart (4%)
  • Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases (2%)
  • In Situ Neoplasms, Benign Neoplasms and Neoplasms of Uncertain or Unknown Behavior (1%)
  • Cerebrovascular Disease (1%)

In both cases, accidents, not murder, top the list.  The leading cause of accidental death is a traffic accident.  That said, it’s still rare for a child to die – the death rate per 100,000 4-9 year olds is 12 per 100,000 people in that age group per year.  The rate for 10-14 year olds is 15 per 100,000 people in that group per year.  However, even the mass murder in Connecticut doesn’t have a significant impact on these statistics.  Over 5,500 children between ages 4 and 14 die per year.

Certainly, we all want schools to be safe.  We also want them to be welcoming.  We want them to spend our tax dollars wisely so that children grow up to be the best adults they can be.  We want parents and the community to know what is being taught to children  Sometimes these goals are contradictory.

And some of the proposed solutions are worse than the problem.  Sure, we can make schools more secure from outside threats.  Will that stop a teacher or other student who is authorized to be there?  Will these things contribute to better transparency and accountability for educators and school systems, or will they hamper those efforts?  Will we increase the internal threat to reduce the external threat?

Sure, we can arm teachers – I’ve heard suggestions of anything from handguns to tazers.  How long would it take for the tazer to be used on a special needs student who is upset about a change in his routine, but not dangerous?  How long would it take for a teacher to misplace his gun, and have that gun found by a student?  There’s a reason most prison guards don’t carry guns – even in a prison, surrounded by criminals, and on the person of a well trained law enforcement employee, the gun is more likely to be used against the officer than to protect the officer.

You want to make kids safer?  Get the flu shot.  If we didn’t give the flu to children, by being vaccinated, we would cut 3% of deaths among 4-14 year olds – or a bit over 1/2 of the number of children murdered each year.  Wouldn’t that be a good thing?  Strangely, I don’t see the flu shot getting the press time that the murder did (nor even 1/2 the time).  Certainly the flu doesn’t inspire the same raw emotions as a shooter attacking children, but it’s just as serious when it’s a child you know.

After doing the flu shot – just about the easiest thing we can do to help save children – we need to address traffic deaths.  Traffic deaths kill 19% of the 4-14 year olds that die each year in the US.  And we know how to do this.  We know it’s things like ensuring we aren’t distracted when we’re driving, not drinking and driving, following traffic (and speed) laws, and giving up our licenses when we’re not able to drive safely.  Yet, it’s far easier to think about putting stronger doors on schools than to change our own behavior.  We care about children’s death – so long as it’s something government can buy rather than something we have to do.

Then we get to suicide.  5% of 4-14 year old deaths in the US are due to suicide.  That’s over 2/3rds the total that is murdered.  But of course we have organizations in the US that have made anti-bullying programs political, so we won’t see real progress there.  Preserving the right of bullies to bully is more politically safe than actually helping the victims – ask the Anoka-Hennepin School District who preferred to foster an environment that promoted suicides rather than ignore right-wing churches.

Finally, there’s been a ton of rhetoric on mentally ill.  Most people distance themselves from someone who could murder children.  They want to know what the difference between themselves and the murderer is.  In this case, they want to say, “he was autistic” or “he was mentally ill.”  Of course they don’t really mean mentally ill is a problem – they mean “mentally ill in a way I’m not,” since up to 1 in 4 people may experience mental illness of one type or another.  And categorizing mental illness as the problem in this shooting does little to get people help.

For what it’s worth, mentally ill people are far more likely to die at their own hands or those of someone else’s than to kill.  Did you know 24% of recognized mentally ill adults report they have been the victim of violence in the last 12 months?  Let that sink in for a minute – 1 in 4 EACH AND EVERY YEAR.  Think about someone who lives more than 4 years as a mentally ill adult.  In the article linked above, Simon Smith says, “Although research suggests that there are factors that may increase risks of violence – such as co-occurring substance use, or not being engaged in treatment – people living with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.”

Yes, we have to do more to protect children in the US.  And we should look at the recent mass-murder in Connecticut and find ways we can realistically help keep kids safe.  But not at the expense of ignoring even larger elephants in the room, nor at the expense of making children less safe rather than more safe.  Our safety initiatives should be based on fact and evidence, not just emotion.  And before we throw up to 1/4 of our fellow citizens behind bars, to “protect” the children, perhaps we need to look a bit deeper.

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