As the United States processes the aftermath of the Newtown, CT school shooting, the first thing parents need to understand about school shootings is how rare they really are. Although it is hard to embrace such statistics in the wake of a tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the chances of a student being harmed or killed over the course of a school day is less than one in a million according to David Finklehor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Valerie Isakova, Yahoo! Shine’s Parenting Editor, writes that 50 million kids went off to school almost every day in the U.S. last year. Of that 50 million, only 17 died due to gun violence.
Moreover, although it might feel like these kinds of events take place with some frequency lately, in reality, the number has held steady for as long as the researchers have been tracking them. The ones like Sandy Hook – with multiple victims that typically capture the nation’s attention — are the rarest of them all.
But numbers aren’t much help for parents – and their kids – who are dealing with the trauma brought on by the events that took place last week. Because parents feel that they relinquish a substantial measure of control whenever they leave their kids in school, even knowing how rare these incidents are will not provide very much comfort or allay fears. Although many parents also have a healthy fear of “stranger danger” type events, they tend to be less preoccupied with them since it is possible to train their kids on how to handle and avoid such situations. This is not possible with school shootings, so the job of keeping the students safe is turned over entirely to school teachers and staff.
San Francisco-based mommy blogger Sunny Channel told Shine “I was reading on Facebook that people don’t want to send their kids to school today, even though they say that one of the safest places is a school.”
Chanel said that she wasn’t personally afraid of gun violence, but that, as a mother with children around the same ages as the victims, the tragedy was “personal” for her. “I have this mother instinct towards all children,” she said. “It touches something in my soul.”
Finklehor calls this kind of mindset “cognitive bias.” Our brains tend to automatically overestimate the possibility of the most horrific and extreme events. They retain a tight grip on our imaginations, and we tend to focus on them at the expense of dangers that are much more immediate and likely.
The result, Finklehor fears, is a “miscalibration of our alarm systems.” He says, “We focus on the rare things rather than the more common and preventable dangers.” Finklehor says that the most common dangers are the ones parents can do something about—car safety and swimming pool safety.
These odds put it into perspective, but with an emotional issue like this, it’s hard for any parent – or anyone – to not want to do something.