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Editorial: Freeman tragedy needs broader perspective

After Wednesday’s shootings at Freeman High School, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said, “Where did we go wrong in raising our kids? All of this violence they consume has perhaps caused a major crisis.”

The steady occurrence of school shootings over the last two decades is undeniably real. And “Freeman” will now join “Columbine” and “Sandy Hook” as part of the sad lexicon. Why does it keep happening? What can we do? We all want to make sense of this.

But the answers aren’t simple, no matter how much we wish they were.

Children all over the world are exposed to violence through media and video games, but it is almost a uniquely American experience for young men to arm themselves and head off to school. Before “Call of Duty” and other video games existed, the juvenile violence rate in the United States was higher. That’s not to diminish the importance of monitoring exposure to violence.

It’s tempting to ascribe the problem to the general behavior of today’s children. That’s one possible reaction to the sheriff’s comments about parenting and “a societal breakdown.” Polls show that public perception endorses this belief. Social media comments after the Freeman tragedy rallied behind the sheriff’s understandable frustration.

But if we examine the larger picture, we see that perception often doesn’t match reality. America is safer today than in recent decades (terrorism notwithstanding). Violent crime is down and that includes juvenile offenses. Twenty years ago, the fear was “superpredators” committing wanton acts of violence. Thirty years ago, it was the rise of gangs. There’s always been a trend that amounted to a “crisis.”

The perception about today’s kids is also wrong on other issues. For instance, teen births and pregnancies have plunged since 1990, but in a 2013 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, only 18 percent of respondents thought there was a decline.

If measured by public health data, society is actually shoring up previous breakdowns.

A 2016 Vox article drew on government data and the federal Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which has been conducted every other year since 1991, and it found that youth behavior has improved on a wide range of issues. Along with fewer pregnancies, teens are having fewer abortions. They fight less, drink less and don’t use drugs as often as the previous generation.

Today’s parents aren’t a train wreck when compared to previous generations. If we must point fingers, then let’s ask what was wrong with the parents before them. We wonder how many people are aware of these trends when they hold forth. We wonder whether some introspection would temper the instant judgments.

What happened at Freeman was horrible. The school shooting phenomenon is heartbreaking and frustrating. Because that particular form of violence is so random, it is also more terrifying. But it only took one disturbed person, and it shouldn’t reflect on the rest of the students or their parents. By all accounts, they are pulling together beautifully, which is no surprise to the people in the Freeman community.

Because they were already strong.


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