Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Clear-Eyed Facts on School Shootings

Editors Note:  The following was written in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.  We didn't post this right away as we wanted to ensure we had clear eyes ourselves.  In the meantime, our real, non-blogging life got in the way.  We post this now as we feel it's an important, albiet slightly out-dated, opinion to share.    

If you want to see the results of mass hysteria resulting from a horrible tragedy and fueled by the media and politicians, look no further than a PTA meeting when school security is on the agenda. 

We recently sat through such a meeting and were amazed by how much fear has engulfed parents in the wake of Newtown.  The fear is understandable and can be justified in the abstract – our job is to protect our children, and they spend as much time at school as anywhere else, so school security is paramount.  But at what price?

The two extreme approaches to school security could be:
  1. Using existing safety and security budgets, maintain and steadily improve a schools current safety and security standards.  School security is not a new issue and has been an area of focus in all schools since Columbine in 1999 (and probably long before that).  
  2. Spare no expense and install the latest and greatest in modern security turning each school into a highly controlled and monitored area no different than a minimum security prison.  No bars on the windows, but locks on all doors, gated roadways, Mexican border-style fencing around the entire property, identification and key cards for all students, faculty and parents, security cameras covering every last inch of school property, facial and license plate recognition software, and of course an armed ex-Marine at each entrance.      
After events like Newtown, our media and political forces have created a supercharged movement towards the prison-school extreme by spending enormous amounts of time and effort pointing fingers and proposing “solutions” to avoid another tragedy.  The NRA even suggested that every school have an armed guard at the front door.

We can’t blame any parent for wanting to protect their children at all costs, but we need to understand the real threat and deploy our limited recourses to accordingly.  For older schools not built with the modern day security measures in place, upgrading to the latest and greatest security systems could cost millions of dollars...per school.  That’s a lot of money being diverted away from educating our children to "protecting" our children.  It's not just a monetary cost either, there is a very real and expensive cultural cost to implementing invasive security measures on school campuses.  Do you feel more or less comfortable when you arrive at Grand Central Terminal and see 25 FBI agents in camoflage flack jackets holding assult rifles? 

What’s missing in the public debate is a true reflection of the risk and incident rates for school shootings.  One school shooting is too many, and Newtown and Columbine were unspeakable tragedies, however, such tragedies are rare.  Incredibly rare. 

Another missing piece to the discussion is whether the hundreds of billions required to update security at our schools would even reduce the likelihood of these rare events recurring.  Newtown had a locked front door and a buzzer and intercom system in place.  Columbine had an armed security guard on campus.     

Our schools need to be safe, and many will require additional measures to protect our children.  All we ask is that the security debates, and the ultimate solutions and expenditures, are informed with clear-eyed facts and not inappropriately swayed by the understandable emotional haze produced by a recent and horrific tragedy. 
To help clear our eyes, let’s look at some facts pulled from some quick research on K-12 school shootings in the US since, and including, Columbine in 1999 – a span of almost 14 years:
  • 35 – Total number of school shooting events
  • 63 – Total number of student deaths (another 22 adults were also killed)
  • 26 – Total number of elementary school students killed 
  • 3 – Total number of middle school students killed
  • 34 – Total number of high school students killed
  • 130,000 – Number of K-12 schools, public and private, in the US
  • 180 – Average number of school days in a single year
  • 327,600,000 – Total number of school days since Columbine (130,000 schools x 180 school days per year x 14years)
  • 327,599,965 – Total number of school days where no students were killed by a gun
  • 0.0000001% - Historical probability of a school shooting at your school on any given school day over a 14 year period
  • 0.0000000005% - Historic probability of a single student being killed by a gun on any given school day over a 14 year period
  • 0.000000005% – Mathematical chance that a single Mega Millions lottery ticket wins the jackpot. 
Therefore, statistically speaking, if you buy a Mega Millions ticket on every day you send your child to school, you are 10 times more likely to hit the cash jackpot than to have your child killed by a gun at school.  In fact, you should be much more worried about your child playing on the playground, driving in a car, swimming, or drinking something they shouldn't.  A couple more facts: 
  • Between 1990 and 2000 (a period four years shorter than our study above), 147 children ages 14 and younger died from playground-related injuries.  Said another way, for every student killed by a gunman at school, 3.25 students were killed by a playground.     
  • In 2010 alone, 890 children ages 5-14 were killed in car accidents, 251 drown and 54 died from poisoning.  Each of these single year totals are significantly higher than our studies 14-year totals.  Said another way, for every student killed by a gunman at school, almost 200 died in a car crash, 55 drown, and 12 died from poison.     
School shootings, while incredibly tragic and highly publicized, are incredibly rare.

Should we do everything in our power to prevent tragedy?  Of course.  Should we be spending millions of dollars per school, and hundreds of billions nationwide in an attempt to prevent a tragedy that’s happened on 35 of the last 327,600,000 school days?  Even if we should, would these expensive and invasive measures even stop these tragedies from occurring?  One more interesting fact to consider when thinking about the miniscule numbers above: 
  • 32 – Total number of K-12 students killed by a non-student (i.e. someone who does not attend the school), 25 of which occurred in two events (Newtown and West Nickel Mines Amish School)
Therefore, absent metal detectors and Homeland Security type pat-downs for each student, most of these tragedies would not have been stopped by even the most sophisticated security measures as it was a student shooting the gun.   As for the handful of other incidents, could they have been stopped by not allowing a stranger on campus?  Perhaps, but Newtown had better than average security procedures in place, including a locked front door with intercom and buzzer capabilities.  Would an armed guard have reacted in the split second required to stop the shooter, or would we just have one more fatality to list in our study?  

Let’s consider some less violent, but equally disturbing, statistics:
  • Of all 4th graders in the US, 33% scored “below basic” on the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress Reading Test.
  • On that same test, 26% of eighth graders and 27% of twelfth graders scored below the “basic” level, and only 32% and 38%, respectively, are at or above grade level. 
  • Our 15-year-olds placed 25th out of 30 countries in math performance and 21st in science performance. 
Can we afford to divert our limited resources from educating our children to trying to "protect" our children?  Do we want to deploy resources that help the 38% of seniors who can’t read at or above their grade level, or do we want to deploy resources in an attempt to reduce the percentage of school days with a student shooting fatality from 0.0000001% to 0.00000005%?

The choice is ours, let’s have clear-eyed facts, not heavy hearts, lead the way.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Defending the NSA

The outrage over the collection of Verizon client data by the National Security Agency is dangerously misplaced. 
In the abstract, it’s reasonable that this activity gives American’s an uneasy feeling.  Nobody should accept government programs that track our every move and listen to our private conversations without probable cause and a warrant. 
Luckily, that’s not happening (at least not that we’re aware of - who knows with this administration). 
The NSA has conceded that it has a huge database with billions of phone call records (only numbers and the duration of calls) and a computer program that sifts through this information looking for very specific patterns or relationships.
This is not a policing or “Big Brother” activity; this is a national security activity with the sole purpose of saving American lives.  The NSA is not worried about building admissible evidence to convict the local pot dealer or even nab a big time white collar criminal; they are focused on preventing the next terrorist attack.  We agree with President Obama when he said "In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother . . . but when you actually look at the details, I think we've struck the right balance."
In the real world, we have to make real choices, and simple questions should settle this debate.
Is your right to keep your phone records between you and your phone provider more important than our ability to prevent terrorist attacks?  What if this type of intelligence could have prevented  9/11?  How would you explain to a 6 year old who just lost her parents in a terrorist attack that your desire to keep your phone records private was more important than protecting her parents?  Are your pious views regarding the balance between liberty and security more important than the lives of her parents?         
Remember, we’re just talking about phone records – a bunch of numbers on a sheet.  We’re not talking about listening in on conversations or advocating for increased security and surveillance.  We absolutely need constraints on the government’s power, and from what we know, those constraints have held firm.  This program has a very narrow objective – stop terrorist attacks.  If you’re not planning terrorist attack, then you should have absolutely no fear that the government cares about your phone calls.  They don’t.  99.999999% of the time, a phone number will get logged and never get a second glance.   Do we really think the NSA and its relatively light budget has the time, manpower, or desire to listen in to Joe Public’s phone call to his mom?
Spare us the “slippery slope” arguments.  They’re lazy, irrational and unproductive. 
Until such a time that an individual can prove that their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness has been unreasonably limited because their phone number shows up alongside of billions of other NSA data points, we support the NSA’s efforts.   
The IRS scandal and even the AP/Fox News scandal are much worse, both in their chilling effects on liberty, and on their potential illegality.  As far as we’re aware, the NSA has followed every legal construct and has obtained these records in accordance with the law of the land.  One can argue that the law should be different, but based on the above we would disagree.  Knee-jerk responses to the NSA’s necessary efforts to keep us safe is nothing more than populist theatre and ultimately damages our national security.