School Shootings and the Thomas Theorem: Real in their Consequences

“If men define situations as being real, then they are real in their consequences.” — W.I. Thomas and Dorothy Swain Thomas, 1928, The Child in America

The Thomas Theorem is a staple of sociological insight, asserting that beliefs have a force of their own, whether those beliefs are factually accurate or not. If people believe something to be true, and act on the basis of that belief, then that belief can have observable consequences in the world, even when a belief is false.

As a case in point, consider our beliefs about the risk to children from school shootings. A regular Gallup Poll of the parents of school aged children shows that a significant portion of Americans with school-aged children have consistently expresed fear for their children’s safety in school, and that the share of parents expressing such fears has increased in recent years:

Gallup Poll Question: Thinking about your oldest child, when he or she is at school, do you fear for his or her physical safety?

We are particularly worried about our children being shot and killed by aggressors packing guns. A typical Facebook discussion not only characterizes the current level of school shootings as “too many” but asks, “How many more innocent people are going to die before they actually do something worthwhile to stop this?” Tennessee resident Kali asks, “Are our children safe at school? School shootings are everywhere with no school exempt. Where or what security measures have been taken to ensure our child’s safety?”

In American culture, we believe that our children are at significant risk in school. But at the same time that parents’ concern runs high, the actual count of children killed in school shootings runs low and, if anything, sunk even lower in recent years. As the latest report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows, the in-school homicide rate in 2010-2011 was 0.00002 percent, which means a child’s chance of being killed in school was 1 in 4.5 million.

In response to these kinds of calls, Hardwire Armor Systems LLC has been marketing bulletproof whiteboards to schools. Its 18×20 model is meant to be used as a standard handheld whiteboard, but features handles on the back and is designed to protect a teacher facing a school shooter from “multiple magazines of ammunition from handguns or shotguns without ricochet or injury.” The most basic 18×20 bulletproof whiteboards Hardwire offers costs $399 — $383 more per whiteboard than a standard whiteboard of the same size.

Is this extra expenditure in every classroom worth it? Hardwire Armor Systems LLC says so, and offers glowing testimonials from students like 9th grader Tori Barros to explain why:

“Recently, there has been a lot of heartbreaking and frightening news about school safety. School is a place to think and be safe. The thought that someone can just walk into my classroom and take my life away is terrifying. My father says, ‘We can’t predict the future, all we can do is be best prepared for uncertain events.’ No one has a crystal ball that can tell us if a bad person is coming to our school. But knowing that Hardwire is providing my classmates and I with the protection that may someday save our lives is a huge relief.”

Some schools are buying.

In comparison to the 1 in 4.5 million risk that a child will be killed in school during a year, in any year 1 out of 60 thousand schoolchildren aged 5-14 die from heart attacks. If a 1 in 4.5 million risk is enough to place a bulletproof whiteboard in every classroom, is a 1 in 60 thousand risk enough to place a defibrillator in every classroom? Although defibrillators are being bought by schools, they’re being placed at the rate of just 1 or 2 per sprawling school, not within arm’s reach of a teacher. Why, when the risk of a student dying from heart disease is 75 times as great as the risk of a student dying from a school shooting? The answer is that we have collectively decided to pay more attention to some childrens’ deaths than others. Measured in terms of our focus on the issue in the media and measured in terms of our efforts to implement a solution, the death of a child from a shooting is more socially meaningful to us than the death of a child from a heart attack.

Even if we ignore other causes of child deaths and limit ourselves to child murders, we can still ask why school shootings attract as much attention as they do. After all, children are killed in much greater numbers in other contexts. Indeed, as the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ recent report shows, only 8 out of every 1,000 child murders occur in the context of school:

Where are children typically killed? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathers information on child homicides from 17 states in the U.S. using its National Violent Death Reporting System, and the results can be browsed suing the CDC’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (also known as WISQARS). During the last year for which data is available (2011), the following are the places where children were murdered:

Place of Injury Percentage
All 100.00%
House, apartment, including driveway, porch, yard 47.32%
Residential institution, including shelter, prison <3%
Transport area: public highway, street or road 27.13%
Transport area: other, including inside motor vehicle 8.52%
Recreational area, cultural area or public building <3%
Commercial area (non-recreational), including medical service area, farm, industrial or construction area 3.47%
Natural area/countryside 4.42%
Other specified place, including school, sports or athletics area 3.47%
Unknown 3.47%


If nearly half of all murders of children take place inside the home (many times more than take place in school), then shall we invest in bulletproof doors or suffocation-safe pillows? If more than a quarter of the murders of children occur on the street, then mightn’t we consider detachable bulletproof street signs as a security option?  Such solutions sound absurd to our ears, but these absurdities are an artifact of how we define the situation: if we were strictly interested in preventing the greatest number of child murders, we might want to consider in-home or on-street changes much more seriously than we consider in-school changes.  The fact that we devote our concern to security in schools despite the relative safety of schools tells us that our concern is a consequence of the way we construct social reality and the stories we tell about danger.  The stories we tell, based on our out-of-proportion beliefs, have real consequences: as teachers hoist bulletproof whiteboards in their classrooms, children die in their homes.