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Portrayal of violence at schools creates unfounded sense of fear

The sight of children fleeing a gunman at a Jewish center in Los Angeles on Tuesday terrified parents everywhere.

Coming as it did after two workplace killing rampages in the South in the last few weeks, the latest violence only heightened concern about security as schools prepare to open this month. Several newscasts paired footage of the children being led away from the community center with clips of students fleeing Columbine High School last April.

But parents, lawmakers and pundits would do well to keep in mind the auspicious findings from a study conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control, published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers found substantial declines in violence at high schools in the 1990s. From 1991 to 1997, the number of high school students who said they carried a gun fell 25 percent. Over the same period, the number of students who said they had been involved in a fight at school decreased by 9 percent.

These trends are backed up by other research. The Department of Education reported recently that 30 percent fewer students were expelled for bringing firearms to school during the 1997-98 academic year than in the previous year. And the Justice Department reported that the number of violent crimes committed by children and teenagers has declined substantially since 1993 and is at the lowest rate since 1986.

But these facts will probably not stop parents and children from believing that America is experiencing a plague of youth violence. As a result, even as students report fewer weapons and fights, they do not feel safer. On the contrary, surveys conducted by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, a non-profit group, found that the number of public school students who said they always feel safe in school fell from 44 percent in 1998 to 37 percent this year.

Other studies show that adults are fearful of teenagers as well. In a national survey on social issues conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News in June, 58 percent of respondents ranked youth violence as a top concern. Only 38 percent selected the nearest contender, Internet pornography and privacy issues.

It's no wonder that Americans remain fearful and confused about youth violence: The hot rhetoric of politicians and ceaseless news coverage are enough to convince anyone that the problem is getting worse.

For instance, Bill McCollum, a Republican representative from Florida, has referred to violent juvenile crime as "a national epidemic" and violent youths as "feral, pre-social beings." Democrats have been just as guilty of using overblown language. They claimed, for example, that their Republican colleagues would have blood on their hands if they failed to pass gun control legislation before the new school year, even though the proposed measures stood little chance of preventing campus shootings.

Anyone watching the news would find it almost impossible to believe that school violence has decreased. The opening of Columbine High School next week has provided another opportunity to reprise the frightening pictures from shootings of the past couple of years. As more schools open, we can expect to hear about every young person who threatens to shoot at or bomb his school.

Sadly, we can also expect that there will be additional shootings. In a nation of nearly 53-million students, it would be surprising if none opted for fame through martyrdom or were homicidal psychotics.

Without question, this small minority of young people can cause great damage. But exaggerated scares about youthful violence can be dangerous, too.

Not only does the hoopla inspire copycat crimes and motivate people to arm themselves in self-defense, but it also directs attention and money away from the biggest risks to young people _ accidents, particularly car crashes, and poverty. With 20 percent of American children living in poverty and thousands dying each year in accidents that could be prevented, our preoccupation with teen killers does our country a profound disservice.

Barry Glassner, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, is the author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.

New York Times