A moral panic is an episode or period of community fear or hysteria generated by a perceived social crisis or emergency. The term moral panic was coined by sociologist Jock Young in the early 1970s and popularized by sociologist Stanley Cohen in a 1973 book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. It is used to designate a response to a condition, episode, person, or group of persons that society defines as a threat to societal values and interests. A moral panic is predicated on an exaggerated fear–that is, it occurs when a community becomes unnecessarily alarmed or, at least, reacts with more alarm than is warranted by a sober assessment of the evidence.
Examples of moral panics include the witch scares of Medieval Europe and 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, the anti-Communist crusades of the 1920s and 1950s, and, to some extent, the fear of Muslim fundamentalism that has occurred in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The United States’ “War on Drugs” has also been described as a moral panic. There have also been regional moral panics over claims that Satanic ritual abuse and child molestation were escalating in certain geographic areas.
In the context of school violence, the national response to widely publicized school shootings in the late 1990s can be described as a national moral panic. It seemed to many Americans of the period that an epidemic of mass school shootings had struck U.S. schools. Children seemed to be obtaining firearms and explosives and going to schools to kill their classmates and teachers in escalating numbers. The fear of school violence led many parents to make school safety a high priority, and some parents even took their children out of the public schools altogether.
Moral panics often lead to political movements and the passage of legislation and other reforms. The moral panic over school violence in the 1990s has been identified with increases in security measures and spending at many schools. The “zero tolerance” policies already in place in many schools in the early 1990s were bolstered and applied even more stringently by the late 1990s as a result of this trend. Today, more than 80%of U.S. schools have zero-tolerance policies in place requiring any violence or threats of violence to be punished by suspension or expulsion. Metal detectors and security guards are in place at many schools where they did not exist previously. Policies in most jurisdictions now require school staff and administrators to report all threats and suggestions of threats to law enforcement authorities.
In many cases, the response of school authorities has been overwhelming and exaggerated, out of proportion to the supposed threat. Concern over school violence has led many school districts to suspend and expel larger numbers of students during the first years of the 21stcentury. Under the zero-tolerance policies now in place in most schools, students have been expelled for shooting paper clips with rubber bands at other students and possessing manicure kits containing metal fingernail files. Shooting spitwads or throwing crumpled pieces of paper has gotten some students suspended. Some students have even been incarcerated for saying things like “I’m going to get you” or writing scary Halloween stories with discussions of school violence.
Growing numbers of students have also been arrested and processed through the criminal justice system over school-related incidents. Tremendous attention is now paid to preventing weapons and violence in schools, even though the most frequent disciplinary matters occurring in most schools continue to be tardiness, class absences, disrespect. and noncompliance. Social scientists have suggested that the unbalanced focus on preventing violence in schools is an exaggerated response to unrealistic fears regarding school shootings.
Researchers have also documented consistent over-representations of low-income and minority students among students expelled and suspended from school under zero-tolerance policies. Under the tough anti-violence policies imposed on most school districts in the wake of the Columbine High School, Pearl, Mississippi, and Paducah, Kentucky, episodes, African American and Latino students have borne the brunt of suspensions, expulsions, criminal prosecutions, and other punishments directed toward school-related threats of violence. This trend has persisted despite the fact that the perpetrators of the vast majority of multiple-victim school shootings have been white, middle-class students.
Panic regarding school violence has also been directed at various cultural influences on children and adolescents, such as Stephen King’s novel Rage,the film The Basketball Diaries, and violent video games. In the wake of some school shootings, such as the killing of three girls at West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997, bereaved family members sued video game makers and film producers for contributing to the violence. For the most part, such lawsuits have proved unsuccessful; however, the distributors of media with violent content have been forced to invest large amounts of money in legal representation and defense.
The overreaction of school administrators and policymakers to mass school violence episodes is highlighted by injury risk data covering many years. Statistics gathered by the Justice Policy Institute and the U.S. Department of Education indicate that crime has actually decreased substantially in U.S. public schools since 1990. Less than 1% of all violent incidents involving adolescents occur on school grounds. Statistically, a child is three times more likely to be struck by lightning than to die violently at a school. Schools are safer than all other places where children gather, including homes and cars.
Sociologist Donna Killingbeck has pointed out the astounding overemphasis on school violence that has typified crime coverage in recent years. Although school shootings represented only 0.4% of homicides in the 15- to 24-year-old age group during 1998, “Network evening news crime coverage [of school shootings] represented nine percent of ALL network evening news crime coverage in 1998” (Killingbeck, 2001, p. 191). Also, although accidents were by far the leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-olds in 1998, such accidents were the topic of only 5% of national news reports.
The phenomenon of moral panics says something about human social psychology. Decades of research by social scientists has established that people tend to adhere to the political, ideological, and social views of the majority, even when such views are demonstrably false. For example, people in groups tend to repeat assessments of beauty and some geometric measurements given by their peers. With regard to social risks, people tend to respond to perceived risks that create immediate fear among others in their communities with more alarm than they do with regard to more real risks to their lives.
- Cohen, S. (1972). Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the Mods and Rockers. London: MacGibbon and Kee.
- Heaviside, S., Rowand, C., Williams, C., & Farris, E. (1998). Violence and discipline problems in U.S. public schools: 1996-97 (NCES 98-030). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
- Killingbeck, D. (2001). The role of television news in the construction of school violence as a “moral panic.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 8(3), 186-202
- Sunstein, C. (2002). The laws of fear. Review of The Perception of Risk, by Paul Slovic. Harvard Law Review, 115, 1119-168.