October 17, 2006

School Safety Becomes the Big Story

Time Frame Results for “School” + “Lockdown”
Labor Day 2006 – Oct. 16 2006 2850
Sept. 27 2006 – Oct. 16 2006 2590
2005-2006 School Year 2300
1999 Calendar Year 266
Labor Day 2005 – Oct. 16 2005 180

There is a terrifying new phrase rapidly entering the media lexicon this fall – the “school lockdown.” Whether it’s included in the caption of a CNN “Breaking News” alert or in the headlines of your local paper, those two suddenly ubiquitous words have become an alarming sign of the times.

Given three fatal shootings at schools in Colorado, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in the past three weeks—and numerous other scares—it might feel as if the American classroom is becoming a fearful, even dangerous environment. And a search of Google News reveals a level of media coverage that is probably serving to heighten that perception.

In the three weeks between Sept. 27 (when the Colorado attack occurred) and October 16, the Google News search located about 2,590 stories containing the words “school” and “lockdown.” That represents more stories with those terms than there were in the entire 2005-2006 school year (2,300), which included the period between Labor Day and June 30.

A search for “school” and “lockdown” between Labor Day 2006 (the traditional beginning of the school year) and Oct. 16 turned up 2,850 stories compared to only about 180 in the same period a year before.

In what is doubtless a by-product of the spreading fear and concern in this kind of atmosphere, the media coverage now regularly entails breaking news accounts of false alarms. That includes recent scares that generated security measures at an elementary school in Port Arthur Texas and at more than a dozen schools in Montgomery County Maryland, as well as a story about a lockdown drill in a suburban Massachusetts high school.

While the school shooting is not a new phenomenon, the emphasis—at least the media’s emphasis—on the lockdown may be relatively recent. A Google search of the entire calendar year 1999, which included the grisly Columbine High massacre and several other school slaughters, unearthed only 266 stories featuring the words “school” and “lockdown.”