Every era has its unlikely but terrifying nightmare scenario that haunts parents, and often their children too. In the wake of the Newtown shooting, of course, it's school safety that's at the forefront of every parent's mind. "I want to weep, cry, and hug my kids," one Babble mommy blogger wrote. Another mother posted a controversial article on her personal blog saying "I am Adam Lanza's mother," and going on to confess her fears that her own mentally ill son might go on a killing spree.
Shootings in schools have been going on since at least the twenties, but it's only been since Columbine in 1997 that they've captured America's imagination at large. And even so, growing up in the 80s and 90s, parents and kids were afraid of sexual predators or stranger-danger abductions. Now, despite knowing the statistics--only 17 out of 50 million school children killed by guns at school in 2010, the last number for which there are figures--any parent with children in a school will be aware of the safety of the buildings and the school's emergency policy. After Newtown, we can't not be. The terribly sad photos emerging of the faces of the slain children are too emotionally powerful for mere reason to combat.
"This fear is a little different," said Leslie A. Johnson, an L.A.-based marriage and family therapist who worked for ten years as the head of a crisis response team, called by first responders to work with victims and witnesses of severe trauma. The fear of a school shooting is more powerful and evocative because, "this is really something that is so out of the parents' control. You can't prepare a child. With an abductor you can educate a child."
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."
"We have unfortunately a cognitive bias towards the most extreme and horrific episodes," David Finklehor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire told Yahoo! Shine. "They tend to stay in our minds."
As a result, Finklehor fears, our children will be less safe instead of safer because of 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. Dangers of violence or sexual abuse rarely come from strangers.
"People shouldn't be misled in believing that our top priority should be beefing up security in elementary school. There are many other things you could be doing to save more lives," Finklehor says.
Parents horrified and saddened by the Newtown tragedy, who wish to take practical steps to safeguard their children can, Finklehor says, not speed, not use a cellphone or text while they drive and buckle up. It feels inadequate for the moment, but it's good, sensible advice.