The mysterious Revere looks at school killings today (or, more accurately, looks at a study looking at school killings). He/she/they opens with an arresting factoid:
The second leading cause of death in the 5 to 18 year old age group in the US is homicide. These are school aged children and the first thing that comes to mind are the big names like Columbine and Virginia Tech. But we know there are other school-related homicides that kill only one or two. Moreover there seem to be more of them than we remember from years past. But are there?
You may or may not be surprised to learn that school killings are not a huge part of this effect. But read the post for the details.
I just wanted to comment on that firt sentence, which plays into a pet peeve of mine. Hearing that homicide is the second-leading cause of death for children 5-18 certainly sounds scary, as it’s supposed to. It creates an impression of some vast epidemic of child murder sweeping across the country like a biblical plague.
That’s really a false impression, though, created by the use of relative numbers. This doesn’t reflect a murder epidemic, it reflects a triumph of modern medicine.
I’m too lazy to do all that much looking for the exact number Revere used, but you can get the essential idea from the following graph from a CDC report showing death rates over time by age group:
That’s the death rate per 100,000 people, plotted on a semi-log scale. The line at the very bottom is the 5-14 age group (not precisely the same group Revere cited a number for, but close enough). Boys that age die at a rate of about 20/100,000, and girls a bit less. That’s a full order of magnitude down from my own 35-44 age group.
So, the answer to the question “Why is homicide the second-leading killer of children?” is “Because there aren’t that many things that kill children.” Something has to be the second-leading cause of death among the young, and murder is it. It’s not that there are a lot of child murders– the absolute number is quite low– it’s that there aren’t many other things killing significant numbers of children.
And that’s really a remarkable testament to the quality of modern medicine. If you look at the numbers on that graph, the child mortality rate has dropped by a factor of three since 1955, and if you look back even farther, I’m sure the effect becomes more dramatic. Diseases that used to regularly kill young children have been all but eradicated thanks to antibiotics, vaccination, and general improvements in medical technology.
We live in a remarkable world, relative to the rest of human history. The use of relative numbers for death rates in this case tends to obscure that fact, and create an alarming impression that just isn’t true.