Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Are kids really safer in schools?

A couple of comments on my last post challenge my assertion that "Kids are much safer in school than any other place."

I admit, I was lazy, I didn't do any research to back up that statement; I'm parroting Lenore at Free Range Kids, who I trust because I've followed her blog for years and she is always rational and data-driven. And maybe "much safer" and "any other place" are exaggerations; probably kids are just as safe or maybe even safer when they're at home, sleeping in their beds at night (or maybe not, because I'm pretty sure domestic violence is a lot more common than school violence).

But it got me to thinking: how would I go about proving or disproving that kids are safer in school than anyplace else?

I'm a skeptic, and I'm very aware of all the ways we can fool ourselves into "proving" something that we already believe. So if I had the time to research safety in schools, here's how I'd go about it:

First, I'd try to get more specific about what I mean by "safe" -- really, I mean "safe from physical harm." I'm not going to wade into a debate about whether our kids are being developmentally stunted or mentally harmed in school.

Then, I'd find a data source (or, ideally, two or three) that I trust that tracks statistics on deaths or injuries. I'm sure there are databases that keep track of emergency room admissions by age, time, etc.

Before I looked at any of the data, I'd decide what to look for. Any large dataset can be sliced and diced a million ways, and 5% of those ways will give you statistically significant (but meaningless) results.

In the "are schools the safest place for kids to be" case, I'd look at the injury/death rate for school-aged kids during school hours, and compare it against the injury/death rate at other times: weekdays during non-school hours, and weekends.

But that's not quite enough-- maybe the middle-of-the-day school hours are just safer in general. So I'd also look at injury/death rates for kids who are too young for school, to try to isolate the "in school" versus "not in school" factor.

To really do it right, I'd hire a statistician to run a regression over the data (or would take that statistics class I'm always thinking I should get around to taking...). But before doing all that, I'd run a Google Scholar search to see if anybody's already done the hard work.

A couple of minutes of searching "school safety" turned up a bunch of studies that focus JUST on violence in schools, but also "The Inherent Limits of Predicting School Violence"which says:
... violent deaths are a rare event, with less than 1% of the homicides and suicides among school-age children occurring in or around school grounds (Kachur et al., 1996). Moreover, the rate of violent crimes committed by juveniles remains low during the school day, but it spikes at the close of the school day and declines throughout the evening hours (Snyder and Sickmund, 1999), indicating that school hours are probably the safest time of the day for adolescents.
I didn't find any contradictory evidence, so short of crunching the numbers myself (which I'm not going to take the time to do), I'm going to stick with "kids are safer in school."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Stop with the lockdowns already...

When I was in school, the Big Bad Boogey-Man was Russia, and we were afraid of nuclear war.

I remember "duck and cover" drills in school, in case of nuclear attack.

Looking back, wasn't that unnecessary fear-mongering? And not just because there didn't happen to be a nuclear war. But because if there WAS a nuclear war, getting cut by flying glass because you didn't hide under your desk when the air raid sirens went off would be the least of your worries.

Today's Big Bad Boogey-Man are strangers in schools. We've had two incidents in Amherst this week where schools went into "lockdown" -- one ridiculous false alarm, and one genuine "somebody creepy and probably mentally unbalanced."

Which makes my skeptical mind wonder: is that just unnecessary fear-mongering? How many times has a school going into "lockdown" saved lives or injury? Can anybody point me to even one story of "Thank God we went into lockdown, that homicidal maniac found the doors locked and just gave up!"

Kids are much safer in school than any other place, despite the high-profile, tragic, terrible incidents that happen somewhere in the world once or twice a year. Kids in US schools are much safer overall than they have ever been.

And it's not because we're locking down our schools; adults in the US are much safer from violence than they've ever been.

I also remember learning to sing about how we're supposed to be living in "the land of the free, and the home of the brave." Locking our kids in their classrooms because we're so afraid of strangers in our schools is teaching them exactly the opposite.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

OPEB funding

OPEB is bureaucrat-ese for "Other Post-Employment Benefits."

We'll be hearing about it more and more in Amherst Town Meeting, because "we" (past Town Meetings / Select Boards) have promised more than 90 million dollars in benefits that "we" didn't put aside money to pay.

Oops. That is more than the Town's total yearly budget.

Promised-to-pay benefits are a huge problem at the local, state, national, and international level. I don't know enough about politics to figure out what is likely to happen, and I suspect we'll see different towns/states/countries try different things-- some will bend or break their past promises, some will plug the hole by taking wealth from people they think can afford it (or who aren't politically powerful enough to complain much), and maybe some will figure out a way to grow their way out of the problem (millions of young immigrant workers paying taxes could push the problem another 40 years into the future).

What should Amherst do?

It is awfully tempting to do nothing. After all, every city and town in Massachusetts is facing a similar problem. It seems very likely that, at some point, either the State or Federal government will step in and fund some sort of bailout, wiping away Town debts by some combination of "breaking promises" and "redirecting wealth." They'll use lots of nicer sounding words, of course; it won't be a local/state government bailout, it will be "Medicare for All" or "Universal Health Security Accounts" or something.

If the Town of Amherst is responsible and tries to pay off those promises itself (which we've started doing, in a very small-so-far way) then we might just end up benefiting less from that future bailout.

Maybe the most responsible thing to do is to be irresponsible.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

High Symbolism, Low Substance debate

Arnold Kling concisely expresses something I've been thinking about a lot lately:
The minimum wage issue is high on symbolism and low on substance.
It feels to me like 98% of the political debate I see is over issues that, in the grand scheme of things, don't really matter.

There are issues that people really, truly, care deeply about. That they get emotional about. That they organize around and march on Washington and make demands.

Abortion. Minimum Wage. Legalizing Marijuana. Children Being Abducted By Strangers. Student loans. Global warming. Peak Oil. Gay marriage. Israel. The Terrorist Threat.

All high symbolism, low substance.

Or, to put it another way: 100% solve any of those issues (in whatever direction your political leanings say they should be solved) and I think the world would look pretty much like it does now.  Slightly better, but not a lot better.

Immigration. Disease. Empowering Individuals / Disempowering Despots. Better Governance ("It's The System, Stupid"). Tolerance.

High substance, often low symbolism. I wish we spent more time talking about things that, if fixed, would make the world much better.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fiscal Cliff: meh

Russ Roberts has had several thought-provoking tweets recently (he's @EconTalker on twitter).

Professor Roberts was my favorite economist even before he invited me to be on his podcast, because he is always rational and skeptical, especially about data or ideas that reinforce his own biases. Listen to a few episodes of EconTalk to hear what I mean.

Interesting tweet #1:
Fiscal cliff will lower federal spending from $3.8 trillion to $3.7 trillion. Oh the horror!
A 100-billion-dollar fiscal cliff sounds like disaster. 3.8 to 3.7... meh.  Lets see, the last time the Federal budget was 3.7 trillion dollars was... umm... well, according to the budget office, Federal spending this year is about 3.6 trillion dollars. So if we go over the Fiscal Cliff, the Federal government will be spending a bit more next year than this year.

Thought-provoking tweets numbers 2, 3, and 4:
A tax cut without a spending cut is not a tax cut. A tax increase with a spending cut is a tax cut.
Spending must be covered by either taxes today or taxes tomorrow (borrowing). So a tax cut w/o cutting spending is not a tax cut...
Spending is paid by taxes today or taxes tomorrow (debt). So a tax increase coupled w/spending cut is a tax cut. 
Politicians of both parties love to promise free lunches for everybody. ObamaCare will save us money! Taxpayers will make money on the auto and Wall Street bailouts! Tax cuts pay for themselves! Interest rates are Historically Low, so now is the time to borrow and spend even more!

I hate sounding like a grumpy old curmudgeon, but none of that is true. I still think:
...the best the government can do is create policies that will encourage and reward productive behavior, and then stand back and get out of the way. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Amherst Homeowners: Mad as Hell!

This is the first house we owned, in Palo Alto, California.

It was tiny. 900 square feet and shaped like a bowling alley.

Taking a virtual walk down the street with Google Street View, I see that the house two doors down is much, much bigger than it used to be.

Which doesn't surprise me; while we were living there several little houses in the neighborhood were torn down and replaced by big, multi-million-dollar properties. Heck, according to zillow.com, that little 900 square foot house is worth just a little less than a million dollars today.

I wonder if Amherst will be like that in 20 years.

Today, the hot-button issue in Amherst isn't cute little cottages getting torn down and being replaced by McMansions, it is big old single-family houses getting turned into rentals for college students. Homeowners in neighborhoods near UMass are upset that their quiet family-friendly neighborhoods are slowly turning into absentee landlord slums.

Part of me wants to just say "I told you so." This is what you get when you do stupid stuff like refuse to allow high-density student rental housing to be built anywhere near anybody. Amherst Town Meeting members have been pretending that the students don't exist and that there is no shortage of rental housing in town for over 40 years.

Fall Town Meeting will debate several zoning articles that are meant to stop single-family homes from becoming multi-person rentals. I think they would be effective-- if a property management company needs to get a Special Permit to turn a single-family home into a multi-person rental then they won't bother buying any more single-family homes.

I don't know where the students would go; apartment complexes in Hadley or Sunderland or even further away, I suppose. Hopefully they'll be riding buses or driving non-polluting self-driving electric cars so we won't see more pollution or traffic accidents. And hopefully they'll stop and do a bit of shopping or eating once in a while, so fewer people living near downtown doesn't mean a less vibrant Town Center.

In the very short-term, I'd expect housing prices to go down a little bit, since property management companies won't be competing for houses any more. Less demand means lower prices.

But if I'm right, and if stricter zoning and rental regulations are effective in driving students out of residential neighborhoods, I think prices for properties near downtown and UMass will eventually rise, because it will make those neighborhoods a more pleasant place to live.

That neighborhood in Palo Alto is right next to Stanford University, and it was a great place to live, if you could afford it. Amherst is not the same, of course-- the main reason that little house is now worth a million dollars is because Google and Facebook and a gazillion other successful high-tech companies are nearby.

But I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Town Meeting debating regulations to limit an epidemic of "tear-down sales" 20 years from now.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

One quarter of a micromort

Belated thanks to Roger Browne who responded to my last blog post and pointed out that there already is a standard unit of risk-- the micromort, which measures a one-in-a-million probability of death.

In the time it takes me to write this blog post, I've got something like a quarter of a micromort risk of dying from all causes. The average person racks up about 40 micromorts per day.

That's a pretty good benchmark! My little brain can understand numbers like one-quarter or 40.

There a great list of relative risks for various things on the wikipedia page for micromort. I've always wondered just how dangerous skydiving really is, and it isn't as dangerous as I thought. My risk of dying if I ever decided to jump out of an airplane (7 micromorts) would be about the same risk as sitting on the couch and watching TV for 4 hours.

Since I wrote my last blog post, we've had a hard frost, so my risk of dying from an Eastern Equine Encephalitis-infected mosquito is now zero micromorts.

I'm not sure what to think of the fact that while we were being warned about mosquitos here in Massachusetts, dying from fungus-tainted steroid shots manufactured here and administered by our doctors turned out to be a much higher risk. How much higher? I dunno. But I would if health officials and reporters started telling us how many micromorts of risk we're getting when we go outside for an hour during mosquito season or get a tainted injection from our doctor...