The Myth of the Grade-School Murderer


c Extra!, Fairness and Accuracy in Media, May/June 2001

Contrary to camera-ready experts, child killers are rarer than ever

By Mike Males

Recent headlines of declining violent crime rates have not dispelled a basic “fact” everyone “knows:” younger and younger children are committing ever more horrific murders today. How do we know? The media -- and the “experts” they unskeptically quote -- keep telling us so.

The “very dangerous combination” of “younger and younger kids... who literally are more disturbed today” and have “unlimited access” to violent entertainment “all contribute to the violence phenomenon,” declared Columbia University psychologist and Lost Boys author James Garbarino in an ABC News “expert” interview (2/9/01). CBS News (9/29/00), covering a murder by Tacoma “kids as young as 11,” quoted sociologist Karil Klingbiel on this “disturbing trend that is...about young age” and concluded: “Now, for many residents there is a sense that Tacoma is not what it used to be...a town once afraid for its children, may be growing afraid of them.” “Increasing Problem,” announced an Associated Press heading (ABC News 3/7/00), citing pediatrician Edward Cox on “child violence...our horrible problem in the United States.”

Killings by younger kids occurring months, even years, apart rekindle assertions of gradeschooler’s unheard-of bloodthirstiness. “No more kid’s stuff: Is murder now child’s play?” Time (8/24/98) headlined, citing police who charged (falsely, it turned out) two Chicago boys, ages seven and eight, with bludgeoning another child to death. “Violence is creeping in more often and at an earlier age,” said the Associated Press (7/6/98), quoting a second grade teacher.

US News & World Report (5/3/99) quoted Baltimore child psychiatrist Susan Villani: “Things have gotten so out of control that children are killing children--and laughing about it.” When a Michigan six-year-old shot another pupil to death, Roger Rosenblatt’s comment was typical: “Children (are) in danger in their schools... this is the way life goes these days” (Time 3/13/00).

Moderates might agree with University of Virginia psychologist Peter Sheras, who (answering ABC.com’s 3/3/00 question about the “trend towards younger and younger children committing serious crimes”) blamed the “new” problem of poorly socialized kids and “the weapons that (are) available” to make “consequences more dire and deadly.” Many others, like Garbarino and Villani, blame “dark” media images and lack of parental supervision. Conservatives such as the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz add liberal “child-centered” psychology and “anticultural” permissiveness to explain why “children are committing so many more serious crimes of the sort once thought beyond their capacity” (Ready or Not, 1999, page 1).

Imaginary horrors

The image of more murderous gradeschoolers satisfies so many theories of what’s wrong with America that no one bothered to check whether this new horror actually exists. It doesn’t. The standard reference, FBI Uniform Crime Reports (Table 38 in 1999 and corresponding tables in previous editions), tabulates children under age 13 arrested for murder every year going back to 1964. The results are startling: pre-teen children show a steep, three-decade decline in homicide arrests and are far less murderous today than in the past.

Homicidal gradeschoolers have always been very rare and are rarer today than ever. In the 1960s, 2.0 children per million population ages 6-12 were arrested for murder. In the 1970s, 2.5. In the 1980s and 1990s, 1.6. In 1997-99, 0.9. In 1999, 0.6 -- the lowest murder arrest rate of any year on record. In raw numbers, about 60 grade-school kids were arrested every year for homicide during the 1960s, 70 per year during the 1970s, 40 per year in the 1980s and ‘90s, just 22 in 1998, and 17 in 1999.

A grade-school child was arrested for murder once a week, on average, in the halcyon days of 1965 when Father Knows Best and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ruled the airwaves? And today, when ultra-violent video games, slasher movies, gangsta rap, explicit TV, Internet savagery, more poverty and family disarray, and automatic firearms are rampant, grade-school kids are 65% less likely to murder? Whose theory can explain that?

Consider how many popular left-to-right sociocultural agendas, political careers, remedial industries, and honestly-held beliefs would have to be revamped if we faced the reality that today’s kids are LESS homicidal. Honest or devious, most “child violence” experts anointed by the media run treatment clinics, sell books, push programs and political agendas, and profit from misrepresenting today’s kids as savage psycho-killers. Scary but true, the way life goes these days.

For more statistical detail, click on:
US1. U.S. murder arrest rates, age 12 and younger, 1964-99:
Grade-school kids are NOT more murderous today (but less!)

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