The media obsession with ‘bad kids’

Updated: Aug 29

Think twice about those narrowly reported ‘student misbehavior’ stories. They can do a lot of unintended harm.

By Cafeteria Duty

If you’re under the impression from reading news coverage that schools have become zones of anarchy this year, I don’t blame you.

A recent headline from the U.S. News and World Report informs us that As Students Return to School, So Does School Violence.

The Washington Post published a similar headline: Back to school has brought guns, fighting, and — brace yourself, people — acting out.

Here’s Chalkbeat: Stress and short tempers: Schools struggle with behavior as students return.

The list of news outlets covering the story goes on and on, including Education Week, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.

Add to this mix the “devious licks” TikTok trend, countless local news stories about student fights, tantrums at school board meetings, and a record-breaking year for school shootings, and who could deny our schools have become Thunderdomes?

This year’s been rough, no doubt. On most days, I leave school dreaming about a drab office job where the most stimulating part of my day is lunch with coworkers.

This year’s been rough, no doubt. But news stories about widespread student unrest aren’t just overblown — they’re odious.

Here are 3 reasons why.

Reason 1: Weak evidence and overgeneralization.

First and foremost, the evidence behind the claims that schools are wracked by violence is weak.

Much of it relies on a form of deceptive, blanket attribution. You see it all over:

“School districts across the U.S. say…”

“Teachers and school administrators across the country say…”

“Multiple schools in Southern California and elsewhere have reported…”

“Teachers are reporting…”

“All over the country, teachers and school districts are reporting…”

“Schools across the country say…”.

Obviously, some generalizing is necessary. But it’s a problem when these stories can only substantiate their broad claims with cherry-picked incidents from across the country.

More than one of these stories sheepishly acknowledges that no national data on violence or misbehavior in schools actually exists.

More than one of these stories quotes the National Association of School Resource Officers without acknowledging an apparent conflict of interest.

A wave of student misbehavior is a theory in search of evidence.

Obviously, some generalizing is necessary. But it’s a problem when these stories can only substantiate their broad claims with cherry-picked incidents from across the country.

Reason 2: Attributing behavior to pandemic trauma

In addition, the coverage is as assured that the wave of school violence as it is of its cause. Which is, of course, the pandemic.

“The behavior issues are a reflection of the stress the pandemic placed on children,” Chalkbeat claims.

The WSJ agrees, since the pandemic “upended” students’ lives.

U.S. News tells us the unrest was “actually expected” given the stress and isolation of remote school.

There are two major problems with this argument.

First, it has become an article of faith that the pandemic has “traumatized” America’s schoolchildren, leaving one with the impression that children have been permanently and manifestly changed for the worse by their experiences during the pandemic.

I feel comfortable speaking for most educators when I say this dramatically overstates the case. While it is undoubtedly true that a small percentage of students have been more than temporarily or irreversibly harmed by the last year or so, the vast majority of students have readjusted just fine.

We even have a bit of reliable data to confirm this: the website FiveThirtyEight conducted a poll asking students themselves how they were fairing and found, among other bright spots, that, overall, “America’s kids aren’t as downtrodden