As our children return to the nation's schools over the next few weeks, I am increasingly concerned that some in the media may exaggerate or overdramatize the issue of school violence at the expense of the best interests of students, teachers and parents. Columbine High School, which had to endure its own searing moment of national attention several months ago, is already under a new media siege as the young people in Littleton, Colo., prepare to go back to school tomorrow.
Clearly, the tragedy at Columbine and the other multiple shootings in our schools over the past two years are newsworthy and deserve our full attention. But as young people prepare to go back to school filled with the excitement of a new year, do they really need to see endlessly repeated images of past tragedies that remain extraordinarily rare in our schools?
The 24-hour news channels, the emergence of online media and increased competition among various media outlets can feed this frenzy to replay searing images at the expense of the victims and communities still struggling to rebuild their lives. As a parent and grandparent, I am as troubled as anyone over the senseless tragedies that have occurred in schools over the past two years, and I fully understand the gravity and attention these scenes deserve. However, it does little but instill unwarranted fear in parents and students when such graphic stories are repeated over and over despite the telling fact that schools remain one of the safest places for our children to be.
I encourage and respectfully ask the media to allow the young people who will go back to school at Columbine High and across America to do so with the hope of a new school year rather than the fear of last spring. The Littleton community has been working hard to knit itself together, just as school systems around the country have been working to prevent future tragedies. I urge the media to respect these efforts to help children get the education they deserve. America's schools can always be made safer, and the tragedies of the past two years have created a new level of vigilance in every school district in America. This is no time to rest easy, and the media have every right to report on what schools are doing and not doing to safeguard their students.
I believe, however, that the media have to provide balance and perspective and put stories about violence in schools in context. Last year, close to 53 million young people went to our nation's schools each day. Tragically there are many homicides that occur among our youth, but less than one percent of all homicides among school-age children (ages 5 to 19) occur in or around our schools. New data indicate that violence among young people is on a downward trend and that the number of students being expelled from school for carrying a firearm decreased by one-third from the 1996-1997 to 1997-1998 school year. This should give us hope that we are making some progress in keeping all of our children out of harm's way. There are many underreported school-related stories that deserve media attention:
Why do schools have to struggle to get psychiatric help for a young person -- who is already prone to violence -- because he or she lacks health insurance? Why do so many alternative schools have waiting lists for troubled teenagers whose lives we can help to turn around if we reach out to them now? Why is the overall ratio of students to counselors in our schools more than 500 to 1?
Each of us has a responsibility when it comes to addressing and stemming violence in our schools and communities. Federal, state and local governments must provide resources and assistance to help keep our schools safe and prevent violence through comprehensive measures. Parents, teachers and other caring adults need to connect with children so that no young person feels left out or isolated. Principals need to develop discipline and crisis-prevention plans in their schools. Communities need to make sure counselors and mental health professionals are available for students. And students themselves have a responsibility to communicate with adults to prevent acts of violence.
Within this same arc of responsibility, the media too have an important role to play -- a duty to report responsibly; to go beyond a particular crisis and provide perspective. As record numbers of children return to school in the coming weeks, I urge members of the media to act respectfully and sensitively, and to let the students and teachers at our schools do what they want and need to do -- engage in teaching and learning.
The writer is secretary of education.