Murder Rate Bumped Off (of List of Leading Death Causes)

Hi Folks! This just in: Homicide has dropped off the Top 15 causes of death in America. It’s been replaced by something called, “Pneumonitis,” an illness caused by people accidentally breathing food or liquid into their lungs — a problem most prevalent in folks over 75. In other words, it is one of the panoply of things that can finally kill us if we live a long, un-murdered life.

There’s good news at the other end of the spectrum, too: Infant mortality has dropped to an all-time low of 6.14 deaths per 1000 births. Read that again: all time low.

Even the death rate from accidents has gone down, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which compiled all these stats.

This is the first time in 45 years that homicide is not among that top 15 causes of death in America. Put in Free-Range Kids terms: The murder rate was higher when most of us parents were growing up than it is now, for our kids. And since I know someone will say, “So what? That just means kids are safer because we are keeping them inside, or GPS’ing them, or making sure they are supervised at all times!” let me quickly note that murder is down among adults, too, and it’s not because we are helicoptering them. Moreover, the murder rate is lower than it has been for almost two generations, which means it is lower now than even before parents began hovering. So I don’t see this study as an endorsement of overprotection.

No, I see it as a reality check: Our parents didn’t feel guilty or terrified when they let us play outside and the murder rate was higher. Today’s kids deserve the even-less-risky chance to enjoy a Free-Range childhood. — L.

M'am! Don't you realize the murder rate has gone down?

Are Lockdown Drills Necessary?

Hi Folks! This reader talks about an issue that I am of two minds about. On the one hand, I truly believe — based on FBI statistics — that schools are extremely safe places and school shootings/terrorist attacks/mayhem are rarer than rare. On the other hand, tornadoes are pretty rare, too, and we had our share of those drills when I was a kid.

Of course, preparing for tornadoes (and fire) had a different social message to it. We were preparing for acts of God, not acts of unspeakable human depravity that just might be committed any day by anyone  — even a fellow student. So mostly, I think that these lockdowns are unnecessary and based on an excessively, nay, outrageously pessimistic view of our times.  And now let’s hear what you think. Here’s the letter that prompted such musings. – L 

Hi Lenore: I’ve just been reading Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature,” and he gives you a generous few paragraphs in his section on violence and children. … Lately I’ve been having a fun time banging my head against a wall at the school I work at, where lockdown drills are mandated twice a year.

Our theme for school improvement this year is “Critical Thinking,” and in the interest of just that, I questioned the usefulness of such drills in a general e-mail in the school’s public folder, using yourself and Pinker, among others, as sources.  I pointed out that there have been only ten incidences of gun violence in Canadian schools in the last hundred years, with most of the casualties resulting from two of them.

Not only did my colleagues not want to listen to my arguments, they actually became angry and resisted the whole process of public debate!  One colleague actually took issue with the statistics, suggesting that we could extrapolate a “trend” from the microscopically rare incidents I had enumerated, and which therefore supported the kind of drastic action our board seems to think makes sense.  I’m still kind of shocked that there should be so little regard for either fact or debate amongst educators.

I’m sure you must feel the same frustration I do.  School violence is actually WAY down.  Here’s an interesting excerpt from a Q&A session with Pinker on the Freakonomics website, which is salient:

Q: Other than writing best-selling books what can people do to help society at large resist the urge to think things are worse and worse and the world is less and less safe when this is manifestly not the case? –Joshua Northey

A: A small portion of the population is willing to be reasoned with, but when I tell my reasonably intelligent sister that “children are probably safer today than at any time in human history,” she scoffs at me as if I am telling her that cigarettes have nothing to do with lung cancer. She is so dismissive she won’t even read the few things I have given her about it, and her attitude is not uncommon.

One necessity is greater statistical literacy among the population and especially among journalists. People need to think in terms of proportions rather than salient examples, to appreciate orders of magnitudes (ten thousand deaths versus ten million deaths), to distinguish random blips from systematic trends, and to be aware of—and thereby discount—their own cognitive biases. When Harvard revamped its undergraduate curriculum a few years ago, I lobbied (unsuccessfully) for a statistical and analytic thinking requirement.

Also, journalists have to rethink their policy of featuring only gory events and terrifying threats. Tensions that fizzle out (e.g, remember how a decade ago India and Pakistan were allegedly on the verge of nuclear war?), wars that sputter to a halt, “war-torn” countries that are no longer torn by war, and other happy events and non-events should be just as newsworthy as things that go bang.

I have been doing as Pinker tried to do, and arguing for a greater emphasis in on analytical thinking in the curriculum, as I’m more and more convinced that universal cognitive biases such as the Availability Heuristic and the Confirmation Bias, among others, ought to be taught formally, so people are at least aware of them.  As Northrop Frye told us, thinking is a skill, not an innate ability (but my students react angrily to that assertion as well!) — A High School Teacher to the North

Halloween Follow-Up — by YOU

Hi Readers! I’ve been behind in my emails and just found this cool idea. Comes from a gal named Catherine. Let’s do it!

Dear Free-Range Kids: How about a post-Halloween column where you challenge your readers to scan their local news and post ANY violent incidents that happened at Halloween?

I just scanned my local news and there was nothing (not surprisingly). It would be interesting to see if your readers can find even ONE.

As a journalist, if I was working for one of the big stations or papers that’s the story I’d be running today:  “Stats show no trick-or-treat tragedies.”

So, readers: Pile on! Anything truly SCARY that happened in your neck of the woods? Or just a lot of candy, costumes and kids? — L.

Ghosts, Goblins & Predators

Hi Readers! I read this piece and it blew me away. It’s by David Hess, a minister outside of Rochester, New York. Kudos to him — and a thanks, too, for letting me reprint the whole thing!

THE NEW URBAN MYTH: THE DANGER OF REGISTERED SEX OFFENDERS AT HALLOWEEN by David Hess

It’s almost time for the annual Halloween sex offender hysteria. This seemingly has replaced the urban myths about poison candy and razor blades in apples. I was interested to find that there has actually been a recent empirical study of the issue. An article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Halloween sex-offender monitoring questioned,” describes it:

…Elizabeth Letourneau, a researcher with the Medical University of South Carolina’s Family Services Research Center in Charleston, S.C., said, “There is zero evidence to support the idea that Halloween is a dangerous date for children in terms of child molestation.”

Paul Stern, a deputy prosecutor in Snohomish County, Wash., agrees. “People want to protect kids; they want to do the right thing and they make decisions based on what at first glance may make some sense. Sex offenders, costumes, kids — what a bad combination,” he said. “Unfortunately, those kinds of policies are not always based on any analysis or scientific evidence,” said Stern, who started prosecuting sex offenders who victimized children in 1985. 

Stern, Letourneau and two others published a paper last year for the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers called: “How Safe Are Trick-or-Treaters? An Analysis of Child Sex Crime Rates on Halloween.”

The study looked at more than 67,000 sex crimes in 30 states against children 12 and younger from 1997 — before many Halloween sex-offender programs began — through 2005, well after many were under way. “These findings raise questions about the wisdom of diverting law-enforcement resources to attend to a problem that does not appear to exist,” the study concluded.

Letourneau said, “There’s just no increase in sex offense on that day, and in all likelihood that’s because kids are out in groups or they’re out with their parents and they’re moving around, they’re not isolated and otherwise at risk.” She said a better use of police on Halloween night would be to help protect children from traffic. “We almost called this paper ‘Halloween: The Safest Day of the Year’ because it was just so incredibly rare to see anything happen on that day,” she said.The entire study is available for purchase. An authors’ summary is available for free.

Interestingly, the study found that sex crimes increased substantially during summer months and that the summer would be a more appropriate time for increased vigilance. More from the study:
It might be argued that Halloween sex offender policies are worthwhile even if they prevent only a single child from being victimized. However, this line of reasoning fails to consider the cost side of the cost–benefit equation. The wide net cast by Halloween laws places some degree of burden on law enforcement officers whose time would otherwise be allocated to addressing more probable dangerous events. For example, a particularly salient threat to children on Halloween comes from motor vehicle accidents. Children aged 5 to 14 years are four times more likely to be killed in a pedestrian–motor vehicle accident on Halloween than on any other day of the year (Centers for Disease Control, 1997). Regarding criminal activity on Halloween, alcohol-related offenses and vandalism are particularly common (Siverts, 2002). Although we do not know the precise amount of law enforcement resources consumed by Halloween sex offender policies, it will be important for policy makers to estimate and consider allocation of resources in light of the actual increased risks that exist in other areas, such as pedestrian–vehicle fatalities. Our findings indicated that sex crimes against children by nonfamily members account for 2 out of every 1,000 Halloween crimes, calling into question the justification for diverting law enforcement resources away from more prevalent public safety concerns.
Literally thousands of articles have been published in recent years about the danger presented by registered sex offenders at Halloween. Absent from all of them has been any mention of any specific incident in which a registered sex offender has attacked a Trick-or-Treater—not one, ever! If you know of any such incident, please e-mail me or post a comment below. I bet you can’t find one. This is a new urban myth. We always need some sort of monster on Halloween. It’s the nature of the holiday.

Guest Post: She’s Breaking Up with “The Today Show”

Hi Readers! This post origianlly ran on Brain Twinkles, a  blog by Layne Aingell. Some of us may join Layne in her break up!  — L.

I have watched The Today Show for over thirty years. I remember when it was hosted by Jane Pauley, her pony tail, and Tom Brokaw. I started watching it as I’d get ready for school during junior high, through high school, college and beyond. I watch it with my girls as we get ready for school and work. It always has interesting stories and does it really get any cuter than Matt Laurer. Plus, I’m waiting for the day that NBC actually does kill Ann Curry.

But I feel it may be time to move on.

After the two lead stories were about the man who allegedly killed Natalie Holloway who is now a suspect in another murder and about a boy who disappeared while walking to his classroom in his school, it occurred to me that almost every morning, the lead story is about a child who has disappeared or been murdered.

According to the CDC, the number one cause of death in children is motor vehicle accidents. In the United States during 2005, 1,335 children ages 14 years and younger died as occupants in motor vehicle crashes, and approximately 184,000 were injured. That’s an average of 4 deaths and 504 injuries each day.

Yet those 4 deaths per day are NOT the lead story on The Today Show.

Obviously, the reason is that it is not newsworthy and would not attract ratings.

The Little One performed in her dance school’s recital last night. The school has a policy, that if you want to take your child home early after he or she has performed, you must have a note, signed by your child’s teacher, that you are doing so. I am aware of this policy, and have complied with it every year I knew I would take my kids home early. This year, both The Big One, The Little One and I participated in the recital (more on my appearance later, if I can get video) and they were scheduled for the end of the program, so I stayed for all the performances. I went backstage to pick up my kids while the awards were being announced. As I was leaving with my girls and The Big Ones two BFFs, who stayed backstage with her during the entire show and are NOT students in this dance school, BTW, the Neo-Nazi stopped me at the door: “Where’s your note?”

“I don’t have one, because the recital is over.”

“NO, they are still onstage, handing out awards and making announcements, you have to have your note.”

“The recital is OVER.”

“You cannot take them without a NOTE”

It took me a good 2-3 minutes for it to sink in how ridiculous this was. Seriously? She wasn’t going to let me take my children, of whom I have LEGAL custody, home from a DANCE recital? Hmmm…wouldn’t her preventing me taking them constitute kidnapping and false imprisonment?

By the time I figured this out, and was about to tell her how unreasonable she was being, several other parents came backstage to pick up their children, WITHOUT A NOTE, and were told they couldn’t. So the Nazi left to see if it was OK for the parents to take their own children home, and we all left.

Without a note.

We are rabblerousers.

My point is, I really do appreciate the fact that the dance school is concerned for my children’s well being. However, I seriously doubt if someone wanted to snatch one of mine or someone else’s child, lack of a signed note would not be a deterrent. I know their argument would be “You watch the news, children get snatched every day.”

Yes, children do get snatched every day. The majority being snatched by a parent or family member. Eighty-two percent, in fact, according to the Department of Justice.

The Today Show, and other news sources, are to the point where these [non-family] cases are getting glorified. It feeds the misinformation of what is really dangerous to American children:

Their own parents and riding in cars.

So, I’m breaking up with The Today Show. It may not be forever, because I do love Matt and am concerned about Ann.

But I need a dose of reality, not sensationalism. — Layne Aingell

Twain on Twains (Well, Really, Twain on the Risk of Train Accidents. Couldn’t Resist.)

Hi Readers — Look at this lovely little snippet of Mark Twain cogitatin’ on risk, and how we tend to blow it up all out of proportion. Apparently we managed to scare ourselves to death back in 1871, too. This excerpt appears on a blog I hear mentioned all the time, Schneier on Security, by Bruce Schneier who is (surprise!) a security expert, and who also writes a column for that great magazine, Wired.

Enjoy a little sanity from the ages. — Lenore

Fantastic (Under-reported) News: Child Abuse WAY DOWN!

Hi Readers — Yes, it’s true! According to this story by the Associated Press, a “massive” federal study finds that child abuse has declined a whopping 26% from 1993 to 2006. What’s more, child sexual abuse is down even more dramatically: 38%!

The reasons seem to be a combination of higher awareness of the crime, less tolerance of it, less shame in reporting it, and more professionals (cops, teachers, social workers, therapists) focused on its prevention and detection. On the perp side, more arrests for the crime seems to have helped, as have therapeutic drugs that tamp down criminal urges. (I always like to say when the criminally insane feel less insane, they become less criminal. But I’m not sure that’s PC.)

According to David Finkelhor, a guy I quote a lot in my book who is head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, “We’ve seen substantial declines over a long period and that’s tremendously encouraging.” In other words: This is not a fluke. Child abuse has been going down for a while.

What’s less encouraging is the fact that this study was not the lead story in every American news outlet. (Yoo hoo! Nancy Grace!)  If child abuse was UP 26%, I doubt it would have been buried. And certainly the story of a single, horrific case can make headlines for days, or weeks. But, as this AP article points out, it’s possible the multi-million dollar report was issued without much fanfare — not even a press release —  because dollars do not flow to problems that are decreasing. You can’t write a grant saying, “Now that there are fewer kids in danger we need more money.”

Cynically I must add that good news about kids and safety does not sell newspapers, or TV air time or parenting magazines or…anything. In fact, it is such an odd story, it violates the whole “Is you child in peril?! Stay tuned!” news template.

So let’s not minimize the problem that still exists — a 26% drop is not a 100% drop, after all. But let us celebrate some good news, even if no one else will. — Lenore