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News Chat

Barry Glassner, author and Professor of Sociology

A chat about teen violence

August 20, 1999
Web posted at: 12:18 p.m. EDT

(CNN)--The following is an edited transcript of a chat with Barry Glassner, Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California and author of "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things." Glassner joined us from New York City on Tuesday, August 17, 1999, to discuss teen violence. CNN Interactive provided a typist for him.

Chat Moderator: Welcome, Barry Glassner.

Barry Glassner: Thank you.

Chat Moderator: What do you say to students and parents who say they are fearful for their safety in school?

Barry Glassner: I think it is completely understandable that someone would be fearful for themselves and their children after seeing these horrific events in the news. I also think that it is important for parents and students to be realistic about the extent of the danger that violence in schools presents. In fact, school violence has been decreasing for several years now. Schools are about the safest places that children can be.

Chat Moderator: What were the findings in a recent study about violence in high schools?

Barry Glassner: There have been a couple of important studies done recently, both of which have auspicious findings in terms of school safety. The first study was conducted by researchers for the Centers for Disease Control. They found substantial declines in violence at high schools throughout the 1990s. Specifically, from 1991 to 1997, there was a decrease of 25 percent in the number of high school students who said that they carried a gun. There was a decrease of nine percent in the number of students who said that they had been involved in a fight at school. The second study is from the Department of Education, and those researchers reported 30 percent fewer students were expelled for bringing firearms to school during the 1997-98 school year, compared to the 1996-97 year. Other studies, as well, have pointed to declines in violence committed by young people at schools and elsewhere.

Question from Cathy: Do you think the media coverage adds to possibilities of violence?

Barry Glassner: I don't blame the media in itself. I think, for the most part, the news media is simply reporting the news. School shootings are highly newsworthy. The perpetual replaying of pictures of students running out of Columbine, however, and the endless repeats of scenes from previous school shootings can leave the mistaken impression that these events are common when really they are uncommon.

Question from Mouse: What do you recommend parents tell their kids about violence in school?

Barry Glassner: On the one hand, I think parents should be reassuring to their children. On the other hand, parents should warn their children about the dangers of firearms and other weapons. I think the best approach is for parents to reassure their children that they are safe when they go to school and that the things they see on the news do not happen very often. At the same time, emphasize that guns are not items that belong in the hands of children or adolescents, and certainly don't belong on school grounds.

Question from Pace: To what do you attribute the rising incidences of mass violence in previously unlikely places?

Barry Glassner: I think the biggest factor is the ready availability of heavy weaponry. There is not necessarily an increase in violence. In fact, there is some evidence that there has been a decrease in violence. It is the degree of destruction and the number of deaths caused in a single incident that has increased. I also think that there are large numbers of young people who find themselves alone, both in school and particularly outside of school. I think that lack of connection and sense of not belonging contributes to the problem.

Question from Cathy: What causes copycat crimes? It seemed that after Littleton there were several other shootings or threats of violence; same with the Atlanta shootings...

Barry Glassner: If you have someone who is unstable emotionally or who feels in desperate need of attention, seeing these events on television and seeing that the shooters receive tremendous attention from the nation can be enough to send such a person over the brink. It would be a mistake to think that an ordinary, well-adjusted person would be led to this kind of awful behavior just by seeing one of these stories in the news.

Question from Pace: What exactly are Americans afraid of that they should not be?

Barry Glassner: I go into that in very great detail in the book, The Culture of Fear, where I discuss scares that have been blown out of proportion ranging from road rage and internet addiction to far more serious concerns such as teen violence and airline safety.

Chat Moderator: How can the message get out that teen violence is really decreasing?

Barry Glassner: If I had to name one group that is especially responsible for the misperception, it would be politicians. Liberals and conservatives alike use each of these incidents to promote their own agendas and political fortunes. Consequently, we hear a great number of warnings. Politicians talking about each of these incidents spread a large number of fears. At the same time, in the media, there is almost non-stop reporting about each of these incidents. Add to that the work of advocacy groups who have a stake in fear mongering and it is clear why there is so much misperception.

Chat Moderator: What advice would you give on how to deal with the fear of school violence?

Barry Glassner: Other research is showing that adults are becoming increasing worried about school violence and youth violence. I emphasize the importance of learning the facts of what is going on and keeping that in mind because those facts are quite reassuring. At the same time, we must work to make schools safer. If we do that, we will be able to turn our attention and resources to problems that are much more prevalent, such as the fact that one in five children in America lives in poverty and the fact that the leading killer of young people is accidents, primarily car crashes, many of which can be prevented. If we get a clearer perspective on which dangers affect the largest number of children, we can be more cost-effective and realistic in how we try to protect them.

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