Risk management

The students, including elementary school kids, in Burleson, Texas are getting fight-back training in case of armed classroom invasion. This follows an apparently serious suggestion from a Wisconsin solon that teachers all pack heat. Really, and really, respectively.

Let’s see, is there any way to see this as something other than mass child abuse for the comfort and posturing of adults who can’t count?

We could list the risks to life facing the kids in order of severity times likelihood, toward which the training time could be used; would “classroom invasion murder” even make it on the first page of the list? What, one wonders, is the additional life expectancy payoff if this time were spent in drivers’ ed, or raw chicken handling, or anything near the top of that list instead of the bottom?

We could array the idea with others on a scale from “continue as at present” to “require students to carry nightsticks at all times (or guns, for pete’s sake; I guess the little tykes could handle a .25 OK, the highschoolers could get a .357 in each backpack, and the football linemen should at least have a .44), and then see where we really want to end up along that line.

We could compare the lifetime benefits of all types from spending the training time and cost on math, or art, or physical education… or defense against a school invader, an event way below being struck by lightning in probability, and possibly come to our senses.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

17 thoughts on “Risk management”

  1. Let's see, is there any way to see this as something other than mass child abuse for the comfort and posturing of adults who can't count?
    That was my thought, too: "They sure ain't teaching rational risk calculations."

  2. Hey, I grew up just miles from Burleson. I am all for the kids being prepared to fight back against adults who mean them harm; In this case the school administration, teachers, and their own parents. If only.

  3. Any bets as to how long it takes Brett Bellmore to come start trolling this post? (Someone should also point it out to Dave "Guns are the answer to everything!" Kopel over at the VC.)

  4. If people think this really is a problem, why don't we use this to bring back/enhance Phys Ed in some kind of mostly PE, some mutrition and a little self defense type deal? Everyone wins, the crazy people get "child protection," we get healthier and more informerd kids and the kids get to spend more time on the playground.

  5. Are they teaching them first aid or how to do the Heimlich? It seems much more likely that one of them will trip over a desk or choke on mystery meat than have to fight a classroom invader…
    I went to elementary school in the 70s, and I vividly remember them separating the boys and the girls for a little sex ed lecture. (We got the more detailed stuff in health class in junior high.) Afterwards, we asked the girls what they learned, and one of the things they learned was how to fight back if you were being raped (the description of the suggested tactic sounded painfully effective to my 10-year-old ears).
    While it does seem absurd to train children for a highly unlikely classroom invasion, it may be as much for the children's benefit as anything. Kids who hear about things like the Amish massacre may feel helpless and afraid. This "training" might help them feel less afraid. Sure, at best it's a placebo, but placebos have their place.

  6. Well, let's have some devil's advocacy:
    When I was in school in Mississippi, we had tornado drills every semester. How likely is it that there will be a tornado striking a school during school hours? How many kids die annually in tornadoes at school?
    I don't see why the risk of being shot by a maniac at school is any more implausible. Now, whether these drills are effective, well-thought-out, etc., is open to question, to say nothing of teachers with guns. (I can think of several instances where I'm very glad my teacher wasn't armed.)
    But let's not be all knee-jerk here.

  7. 1) Tornados are known to be more common in certain parts of the country than others, and at certain times of the year in particular. Some parts of the country regularly have "Tornado Watches" on the local news, whereas I have never seen such a thing in my 24 years living in Pennsylvania. Insane gunmen, however, are random and therefore no school can say that an insane gunman is particularly likely to attach their school.
    2) If a tornado is poised to attack the school, at least there will be some advance warning and time for preparation. Also, we pretty much know the basic pattern by which tornados carry out their destructive work. However, insane gunmen are by definition unpredictable, so there is little chance of developing a protocol for handling "insane gunman situations". If an insane gunman suddenly bursts into the school, no amount of preparation will prevent mass hysteria from overcoming the students.

  8. It turns out that over a century, there have averaged about 2.5 tornado deaths, with an incident every other year, in schools (would you believe a Wikipedia entry for this??!!) and since Columbine, and counting it, about the same rates of school invasion deaths, so the tornado example is quite apropos. (Lots more deaths in schools, but nearly all are a guy shooting his ex-girlfriend in the parking lot and like that.)
    As Ned points out: (1) since tornadoes are highly concentrated geographically, where there is a risk, it's actually higher, but not spectacularly. So Anderson may have a point, though it may also be to stop doing tornado drills also. (2) The key question is whether the drills are likely to pay off in a real situation, which is very hard to say. There are about 300 million school-age kids, spread over twelve grades. If every one had two hours of this training once, it would amount to 17 million person-hours invested each year to save each life. As to the deterrent effect on perps of knowing that every kid in the target school is a small Navy Seal armed with a really sharp pencil and sharpshooter qualified with rubberband and paperclips, not to mention the attack gerbil ready to be unleashed, I leave it to Mark to weigh in if he knows.
    I can't imagine that's the most lives we could save with that investment, but I suppose it could be true; what's the marginal payoff to additional swimming/driving/drug caution training?

  9. Speaking of reality-based thinking, I'm not so sure that e.g. dying from a school invasion is all that much lower probability for a schoolkid than dying from a lightning strike (reread OP last sentence).
    Total annual US deaths from lightning strike: 47 (2003 – see http://www.nsc.org/lrs/statinfo/odds.htm; I'm too lazy to look up the year on year variation and see if 2003 was unusually high or low for lightning deaths). If lightning strike death is evenly distributed across the population pyramid (I suspect it's not, more likely that many of the deaths are occupationally enhanced exposures like utility workers), then we'd expect about 8 deaths in the 5 to 18 age bracket. So far 2006 is roughly a match with that for school invasion fatalities among children. Columbine roughly two years worth of lightning fatalities. Here's to the hope that 2006 continues to be a high outlier on school invasion fatalities per year.
    Note that I'm not taking a position either way on your assertion that the proposed actions are security theater or any other cost-benefit analysis. But the last statement was bogus.

  10. well, not entirely bogus; average lightning deaths are 73 per year according to this http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/05/0
    So that's a dozen deaths for school-age kids, and I think the six-year average since 1999 (3) is a better guess than this year's outlier for school invasions. But now that you mention it, learning about how to not get zapped might be a good curriculum item.

  11. Michael and Anderson
    One of my concerns since Beslan (school invasion attack that left 300 dead in a Caucusus state of Russia) is that a terrorist group would attack a US school.
    This is not a *random* event, but a directed one created by rational human beings– the past is no statistical guide to future prevalence. Richard Clarke (ex head of counter terrorism in the Clinton White House) has speculated that terrorists would attack Mall of the Americas, and indeed MoftA apparently did tighten up security post 9-11 (see Clarke's article in the Atlantic).
    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200501/clarke
    The Ville de Montreal has seen 3 horrific school shootings in the past 15 years. First a crazed man killed 14 women freshmen engineering students, then another professor killed 4 of his colleagues, then most recently a man entered an English Language CEGEP (college preparatory school) and killed one, critically injured 6, but was shot down by police who responded within 3 minutes. I suspect (can't prove) that the knowledge of the previous crimes inspired the 3rd gunman– these are not statistically isolated events.
    A terrorist attack on a US school would be *so* much more effective than an attack on a shopping mall. Big enough, it could have the psychological impact of a 9-11. AFAIK in 9-11 almost no children were killed (contrast that to the nursery/creche blown up in Oklahoma City).
    The propaganda value of such an attack would be so great, that it would be worth doing even though the numbers of children killed might be small. The hostage-taking drama alone would be hugely valuable to a terrorist organisation. It's like targetting school buses in Israel (which has been done, on occasion).
    For this reason, the 'wasted effort' to protect schools might be worth it. For the same reason that it is worth protecting chemical plants, or nuclear power plants– even though, AFAIK, no one has ever attacked one of these succesfully in the USA.

  12. The *random* he refers to is not just by whom and for what reason, but where, when and how. But I think a bigger point is not to confuse risk with pride.
    Attacks like the on on 9/11 do kill many people but more importantly damage a nation's pride and self-image. If we had spent all the money we've spent on terrorism defense on something like putting portable defibrillators in public places and teaching people to use them we would save more lives in the long run. The same goes for making cars safer, work places safer, hospitals safer, pretty much anything safer.
    Of course anyone who brings this sort of argument up in a political setting must face the "My opponent clearly wants to let your children be murdered while learning algebra" arguments, all while tring to convice the parents that the child is more likely to be killed on the way to school than in school.
    The difference? A child killed in a car accident is a tradegy (Why us?), a child killed in a school shooting is an outrage (How did we as a nation allow this to happen?). The former seems uncontrollable while the latter immediately controllable. Hence pride is the motivator.

  13. It may not happen at school, but violence is a sufficinelty common aspect of American life that self defense trianing in school makes a lot more sense than the intensive training in dodgeball my school system offered.

  14. Two points. First, why should "self-defense training" bring to mind firearms (especially in the context of children!)? And secondly, aren't fears important and not just the rationally assessed "realistic threat"? In light of both these questions, my own gut response to the proposed training (which I presume will NOT entail any form of firearms is "why not?" as well as "high time too"" In recent years, it seems to me that we've been teaching kids to be more and more powerless — not only taking "phys ed" out many schools but assuming that kids are incapable of walking (or biking) themselves there. I realize of course that this is only part of a much larger debate about our whole society and the "security" issue that Milton raised in Paradise Lost . . .
    .

  15. Two points. First, why should "self-defense training" bring to mind firearms (especially in the context of children!)? And secondly, aren't fears important and not just the rationally assessed "realistic threat"? In light of both these questions, my own gut response to the proposed training (which I presume will NOT entail any form of firearms is "why not?" as well as "high time too!" In recent years, it seems to me that we've been teaching kids to be more and more powerless — not only taking "phys ed" out many schools but assuming that kids are incapable of walking (or biking) themselves there. I realize of course that this is only part of a much larger debate about our whole society and the "security" issue that Milton raised in Paradise Lost . . .
    .

  16. Two points. First, why should "self-defense training" bring to mind firearms (especially in the context of children!)? And secondly, aren't fears important and not just the rationally assessed "realistic threat"? In light of both these questions, my own gut response to the proposed training (which I presume will NOT entail any form of firearms is "why not?" as well as "high time too!" In recent years, it seems to me that we've been teaching kids to be more and more powerless — from taking the one opportunity for physical activity ("phys ed") out of all too many schools to the now pervasive assumption that kids are incapable of walking (or biking) themselves there. I realize, of course, that this is only part of a much larger debate about our whole society and the "security" issue that Milton raised over two hundred years ago in Paradise Lost . . .
    .

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