In the United States, “action” consists not of taking constructive measures to fix a troubling social problem, but designating a powerless scapegoat to blame for it. Authorities and media commentators had already pigeonholed April’s massacre at Virginia Tech as just another “school shooting” by an “angry kid” long before a gunman or motive had been confirmed.
“We’re not recognizing the violent thinking in these kids,” declared “criminal profiler” Pat Brown. CNN’s Lou Dobbs, fuming that “kids” need more “discipline,” demanded a national commission to investigate “violence on campuses.”
“We need to raise kinder, gentler kids,” a psychologist declared on MSNBC, which then queried, “Parents, how safe do you feel sending your kids to school?”
Here’s how safe: The FBI reports that out of 49,357 murders in the United States from 2003 through 2005, just 27 took place on college campuses. The National School Safety Center found that 54 of the 89,947 firearms deaths in the United States over the past three years (including murders, suicides and accidents) occurred at elementary and high schools or at school events.
That’s right: Our schools and universities (enrollment: 65 million), filled with supposedly crazed, angry, gun-packing adolescents, are safer from gun violence than Denmark. Most rage massacres are instigated by middle-aged men. Kids should worry about parents going to work far more than parents about kids going to school.
But schools are identified with “youth,” which means they can be exploited by interest groups with impunity. Campus security and counseling industries tossed ethical standards aside to profit from terrorizing parents and policymakers with images of drunken, rapist, suicidal gun maniacs roaming campuses.
My own American Federation of Teachers’ newspaper blared grotesque fabrications that counselors need more money because “the number of students with depression has doubled,” “the number of suicidal students has tripled,” “sexual assaults have gone up fourfold,” and other despicable rot.
Of course, mental health professionals always pronounce each new generation apocalyptically troubled. In 1913, psychologists warned of “epidemic child suicide” driven by school stress. In 1935, they declared that three-fourths of young men (now dubbed part of the “greatest generation”) were debilitated by mental anxiety. In 1945, they lamented new waves of maladjusted adolescents. Just like today.
Today’s student insanity “crisis” shows up nowhere in our best measures, beginning with “Monitoring the Future” and “The American Freshman.” Both large, long-term surveys find today’s students happier, less alienated, less lonely, less pessimistic and having more fun than those of 20 or 30 years ago. Fewer students today take either stimulants or sedative drugs, whether illicit or prescribed by doctors.
Public health measures confirm improving student health. Suicide on campus? Rare and declining. Binge drinking? It’s down, but still a problem – on campus, and throughout American society. Crime? The FBI finds campus violence rates low, although crime everywhere is underreported. Violent deaths? Every careful study shows students are much safer than the rest of us.
The most worrisome campus troubles involve not freshmen with adjustment problems, but older students. The 2003 “Big Ten” study found only 9 percent of campus suicides were committed by students ages 17 to 19; most were 25 and older. My study of 734 violent deaths on or around University of California (UC) campuses during school months from 1995 through 2004 found that 17- to 24-year-olds, while making up 40 percent of campus-area populations, accounted for just 12 percent of suicides, 16 percent of gun deaths and 23 percent of homicides. Older students and college personnel are much more at risk.
The problem isn’t crazier students. The few studies about student use of mental health services, such as one by Kansas State University, show that about 5 percent use them – a rate that hasn’t changed in 15 years. The problem is crazier policymakers. Lawmakers and regents have slashed education budgets, even during soaring enrollment, saddling understaffed high school and college services with unmanageable workloads.
Student counseling services could have launched a legitimate, ethical campaign for adequate funding by showing that their caseloads exceed their guidelines. Instead, most took the low road, shrieking to the press and in policy forums that campuses have become denizens of deranged youth.
The irony for students is bitter. A “key reason for raising” tuition by 7 percent, UC officials told the San Francisco Chronicle in April, is to “improve mental health services.” This despite a new UC survey finding that students ages 16 to 22 cite “school and money as their top sources of personal stress.”
Congratulations, mental health professionals, school officials and unions: Your manufactured “crisis” libeled students, ripped them off, shut thousands of poorer youth out of college and increased the stress of all college youth. Your irresponsibility shows again how badly today’s youth services jungle needs a tough code of ethics.