Despite Heightened Fear Of School Shootings, It's Not A Growing Epidemic Despite the real pain and anger over school shootings, the numbers show such incidents are not increasing. But statistics are cold comfort at a school where it's happened.
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Despite Heightened Fear Of School Shootings, It's Not A Growing Epidemic

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Despite Heightened Fear Of School Shootings, It's Not A Growing Epidemic

Despite Heightened Fear Of School Shootings, It's Not A Growing Epidemic

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The school walkouts that happened yesterday around the country channeled an intense feeling of anger and frustration for a lot of young people. A month after 17 people died in the Parkland, Fla., shooting, students walked out of class in more than 3,000 schools across the country by one estimate. So now it's been a month that the shooting has dominated national headlines. And NPR's Martin Kaste says there is a disconnect between the perception of danger in American schools and the reality.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: James Alan Fox is a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, where he researches mass murder. And when it comes to school shootings, he wants us all to take a deep breath.

JAMES ALAN FOX: Schools are safer today than they had been in previous decades.

KASTE: He's analyzed the numbers and found that fewer kids are being shot and killed in schools now than a generation ago. If you're counting the number of mass shootings in schools, well, he says that number has also been higher.

FOX: There were more back in the '90s than in recent years. For example, in one school year in 1997-'98, there were for multiple-victim shootings in schools in one academic year.

KASTE: Fox says there's no denying the horror of the 17 deaths in Parkland last month, but he says anxious parents should keep in mind that there are well over 100,000 schools in this country. And the likelihood of this happening in your school is tiny. Still, statistics are cold comfort when it does happen to your school. Take Marysville Pilchuck High, about an hour north of Seattle. At the end of the school day, kids stream past the locked doors of the old cafeteria. It's been off limits since 2014, when a freshman shot five students there. Four of them died, and he also killed himself.

KYLA MORRISON: It just feels very, very kind of dark. Like it's scary to be able to walk by there and have those flashbacks.

KASTE: Kyla Morrison (ph) was a freshman that year. Now, she's a senior. There's a brand-new lunchroom at the school. They call it the commons to avoid that dreaded word cafeteria. But still, she says, a lot of kids would rather not eat there.

KYLA: They eat in teachers' classrooms. And they like to be with the people who make them feel safe.

KASTE: Making students feel safe is a big part of the job for acting school Superintendent Jason Thompson.

JASON THOMPSON: Probably every day it pops into your head at one time or another, whether it's a fire drill and how to react to that or a teacher that you learn is out on medical leave because of PTSD from the shooting.

KASTE: He knows students are far more likely to fall victim to other kinds of threats - drugs, suicide, sexual violence. But that doesn't let him off the hook when it comes to worrying about this.

THOMPSON: You think, OK, we've had our shooting, right? I mean, it's human to think that way. But a lot of - I think a lot of times, for me, it's like, this can happen again.

KASTE: So when shootings happen elsewhere, the administrators pay attention, trying to learn new security lessons. But at the same time, the counselors here tell the students not too obsessed with those other shootings. They remind the kids that 24-hour cable and social media have a way of amplifying other tragedies. At Northeastern University, James Alan Fox says modern media are a big reason that people think school shootings are on the rise.

FOX: We just have much more coverage of the events in a very graphic way. Today, we have cellphone recordings of gunfire played over and over and over again. So it's - the impression is very different. That's why people think that things are a lot worse now, but the statistics say otherwise.

KASTE: Other experts agree. Dr. Garen Wintemute is director of the newly-created University of California Firearm Violence Research Center.

GAREN WINTEMUTE: Whether it's school shootings or public mass shootings in general, we grossly overestimate that risk.

KASTE: Wintemute says media coverage is part of the reason, but he also points to the indiscriminate nature of this kind of violence.

WINTEMUTE: Public mass shootings, school shootings included, are the one form of firearm violence about which no one can tell a story that leaves them and their loved ones out.

KASTE: Both Wintemute and Fox warn against letting this fear take over, say, by turning schools into fortresses. And at Marysville Pilchuck, they have resisted that temptation. The school is still a welcoming place. Yes, there's a security guard, but it's still an open-plan campus with no big new fences, no metal detectors, no armed teachers. One of the students here, Olivia Serdinio (ph), says school shootings are not what she's worried about - it's shootings in general.

OLIVIA SERDINIO: I think that like it's not dangerous because of how schools are but - because a shooting can happen anywhere - it's just more about gun availability.

KASTE: She and Kyla Morrison helped to organize the anti-gun violence walkout here yesterday, and they say they're going to keep pushing that issue after they graduate and leave behind this school and that locked cafeteria. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Marysville, Wash.

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