The School Violence Myth

The randomness of the Virginia Tech shootings, and the way we hear the gory, horrific details reported over and over can make us lose perspective. One psychologist issued a press release saying, "We need to take action now to … end this epidemic of violence."

California legislators held special hearings on campus safety, and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said she hoped this would "reignite the dormant effort to pass common-sense gun regulations in this nation." Please. That's a lot of reaction for something that almost never happens.

Many Americans believe schools are more dangerous than ever, but that's a myth! It's one of many I've discovered in 36 years of consumer reporting. (Click here to buy "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity").

Watch "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity" on a special edition of "20/20" Friday, May 4th at 10 p.m. EDT

Death Toll Declining

In the early '90s -- the first years records were kept -- there were more than 40 deaths just from K-12 school shootings per year. Since then, the death toll has been trending down, not up.

MYTH: Schools are violent.

TRUTH: Schools are pretty safe.

Media bad news bears love crime and violence. Terrible things are happening, and everyone knows they're happening much more often. The gory pictures and the excited copy conceal the actual truth: America is safer than almost any country in human history.

The Virginia Tech shooting has resurrected the fears that the Columbine, Jonesboro and Paducah school shootings created during the late 1990s. Those killings triggered a regular spate of stories about "spreading school violence." But school violence in America had been steadily decreasing. Violent crimes in schools dropped by half between 1992 and 2002, although reporting about school violence increased.

Schools Are Safe

The shooting incidents are awful but aberrant; more Americans die from lightning strikes than from school violence. More kids die in bathtubs. But the media had become obsessed with school violence. After Columbine, my network aired 383 stories about the tragedy. Sam Donaldson warned wary parents and students about "angry teens turning up in other towns." CBS News correspondent Bob McNamara called school shootings "an American nightmare that too many schools know too well."

But it wasn't a nightmare that schools knew well. In fact, students are probably safer in school than they are at home or at the mall. Crime statistics show that kids are twice as likely to be victims of violence away from school than they are in school.

The media hysteria encouraged people who run schools to do crazy things, like spend thousands of dollars on security cameras, and hire police officers to guard the doors. Some schools terrified students by running SWAT team drills; cops burst into classrooms and ordered kids down to the floor. The result? Students felt less secure than ever before. Though school violence was down, studies show kids were more scared. "They can't learn under these conditions," said psychologist Frank Farley, former head of the American Psychological Association.

To listen to the media, Farley told me, you'd have to believe that Chicken Little was right. "The sky is truly falling. America is in terrible straits and our schools are a mess and they're violent. But they are not violent. I don't know why there is all this press coverage, other than the need for a story," said Farley.

That's it. The media beast must be fed. Scares drive up ratings.

Portions of this story taken from John Stossel's book, "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity," coming out in paperback May 1.