Body Count

Some government agencies, school safety experts and the media representatives have stressed that the number of homicides in American schools has declined sharply in recent decades. This has become one of the primary indicators used to assure the public that all is well in our schools. Though no one has complete and accurate historical data on homicides in our schools, the limited available data does support the contention that fewer people are being murdered in our schools than in past decades. But as we have become fixated on the number of incidents that result in fatalities, are we being lulled into a false sense of security by a façade of numbers?

Shattering the myth

Groundbreaking research results released earlier this year indicate that the much touted drop in the American homicide rate may be more due to advances in other factors. Anthony Harris, the director of the Criminal Justice Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, along with three other researchers, published a paper in the May issue of Journal of Homicide Studies that challenges many popular notions. The researchers provide compelling evidence that the major influence on the reductions in the murder rates are directly correlated to vast improvements in emergency medical treatment. In short, they report that a person who is shot, stabbed or otherwise suffers a traumatic injury today is much more likely to survive than a person who received a similar injury in previous decades. The statistics they offer in support of their argument show that while the murder rate has dropped, the number of people seriously wounded in violent attacks has risen sharply.

According to the research, the ratio of serious assaults resulting in death has dropped by about 70 percent. Using their ratio to extrapolate the rate of homicides that would occur without the improved medical care, the researchers contend that between 30,000 and 50,000 Americans would be murdered each year in our country, more than doubling and potentially tripling our current murder rate. Twenty years of experience working with victims of weapons assaults and the emergency medical personnel who cared for them leads me to believe that their research is on track.

What Does This Mean?

If the projections are correct, they would obviously apply to incidents of school violence as well. If the research is accurate, our schools would be the scene of two to three times the number of homicides were vastly superior emergency medical care not available. Keeping in mind that the majority of victims who are shot, stabbed or otherwise seriously assaulted survive, the real rate of serious violence in our schools is much worse than the rate of violent deaths would indicate when viewed in isolation. While we are all pleased that a higher percentage of victims are surviving their wounds, our ultimate goal should be that they not suffer violent injuries of any kind.

Other Serious Implications

While the research obviously has significant implications when it comes to school violence, there are other significant points to be gleaned from it. Violence is not the only cause of death in our schools. Students, faculty, staff and visitors die more often from medical emergencies and accidents on campus than from acts of violence. Better emergency medical care also improves the likelihood that a student will survive an injury resulting from an accident. Like the homicide rate, this means that we can just as easily miss the significant cues to take action provided by accidental deaths on campus. Just as schools must focus on reducing violence, there is a need to work diligently to reduce risks likely to result in injuries from accidents. Another consideration is whether schools fully utilize the advances in emergency medical technology. We now have excellent emergency defibrillators that can dramatically improve the survival rate of a student, staff member or a visitor who experiences a heart stoppage on campus. These remarkable units are becoming more commonplace in our airports, private businesses and government buildings. They clearly have a place in our schools as well.

The school safety arena has frequently been fraught with political pressures for school, government officials and others to proclaim that our schools are safe. The media has vacillated between hyping the situation beyond reality and painting a picture that school and public safety officials are over-reacting. Regardless of how the available data is interpreted, it is safe to say that even those with the most optimistic views would agree that we would like our schools to be safer than they are. The fact that the body count is often a primary consideration in our evaluation indicates that we have much work to do.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at