Halloween Candy Poisonings, School Shootings and Human Psychology

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KDKA — Razor blade reported found in a 12-year-old’s candy in southwestern Pa.

What can parents do to minimize their children’s risk of being hurt or killed by poison or sharp objects in Halloween candy?

How many children would you say die each year from eating poisoned candy (or candy with razor blades and such) each Halloween? Just two or three? Maybe only one every few years?

In the year 2006, two children drowned while riding tricycles into swimming pools. Should parents be more worried about their children being poisoned by Halloween candy, or more worried about their kids riding tricycles into pools?

Which are you more likely to see on your locate TV news — a story about the risks of kids riding their tricycles into swimming pools, or the threat of kids being poisoned by Halloween candy?

Tonight on Fear & Outrage TV, talking heads you can trust will confirm, massage, and exploit your worst parental fears by telling you to throw away all the candy you collect from strangers, and recommending that you give your kids only the candy that you buy yourself. But first, these messages from very happy candy manufacturers and retailers.

My local TV news station ran a story about a reported case of a razor blade in Halloween candy. The KDKA anchor helpfully noted that “It’s too early to say whether this is a mistake or something more sinister,” but since the eyeballs in their living rooms need something to stare at in between commercials, the story ran.

Wait a minute, you say… you remember your parents confiscating Pixie Stix when you were a kid, because wasn’t there some kid who died from a poisoned Pixie Stix?

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Blamed his child’s death on poisoned Halloween candy in 1974; convicted of murder for putting the poison in his own child’s candy. (Snopes.)

It turns out, 1974, a child did in fact die from a poison-laced Pixie Stix. The father of that child, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, had recently taken out a big life insurance policy on his family members. Prosecutors said that as part of his scam, he also poisoned three other children, including his own daughter (Snopes). The father was convicted and executed.

Snopes also reports a case in which a 5yo child got into his uncle’s heroin stash, and the family sprinkled heroin on the child’s candy in an attempt to protect the uncle. Reports of heroin in Halloween candy spread much faster than the follow-up story that placed blame on the uncle.

The story about getting poisoned candy from strangers has been used over and over again by people who try to throw investigators off the trail. Reporters pick up the story and spread it to audiences eager to worry about it; when the truth comes out later, it’s a courtroom story, it’s no longer Halloween, and there are other, more telegenic stories to capture our attention.

Has any child, ever died from Halloween candy that has been maliciously tampered with by a stranger? 

There might be any number of good reasons why you might want to go through your kid’s candy before you let them splurge. You might have someone in your home with a food allergy, or maybe the thought of letting your child swallow colored sugar from a tube doesn’t appeal to you. Maybe you have established your own version of what my kids call the Daddy Tax (if I paid for your food, or I drove you to the event where the food was served, or if I just like the look of that thing on your plate, I get as much of it as I want).

In the 1980s, I have found stories of candy bars with pins or needles, including one man convicted on one count of “adulterating a substance with intent to cause death, harm or illness” in 2000, but there are no reports that anyone was seriously injured (“eighty cases of sharp objects in food incidents since 1959, and almost all were hoaxes. Only about ten culminated in even minor injury, and in the worst case, a woman required a few stitches”). Note that this report is about “sharp objects in food incidents,” not necessarily sharp objects in Halloween candy.

The story that exists in our mind — the threat associated with neighbors we only interact with once a year on Halloween — is much bigger than the facts really suggest. Just because we fear something doesn’t make that thing dangerous. But because we fear something, we are likely to watch a TV news segment about it. And TV news is all about ratings.

A similar thing happens with school violence.

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We remember emotional images like this (from the Sparks Middle School shooting). We don’t as easily remember how rare such shootings really are.

When you consider the amount of time kids spend in school, and the number of kids who are in school, the incidents of school deaths are surprisingly small. Of course I don’t mean to minimize the importance of any child’s death. Even one death is too many. But because TV news emphasizes anything with an emotional impact, and because we as humans respond to powerful images, we all remember the photos and video of terrified children, worried parents, and horrific crime scenes.

In Two killings do not a trend make; homicides remain rare in schools, Bill Dedman writes:

On Monday, a 12-year-old boy shot students and killed a teacher in a middle school in Nevada. On Wednesday, a 14-year-old soccer player in Massachusetts was accused of killing a beloved math teacher. Soon the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings will be upon us, bringing a new wave of discussion and debate about school shootings.

[…]

“The perceptions about violence — it’s almost a moot point,” said researcher Randy Borum, a psychologist and professor at the University of South Florida who has studied methods to deter school shootings. “Fear of crime and the amount of crime are not correlated with each other. People gauge the probability that something will happen by the availability of the memory. And right after Columbine or Newtown, that memory is salient.”

It’s hard to say whether the general incidence of school violence of all types is increasing or not.

If you find a statistic, like this one, what does it mean?

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Does the above chart count students who were killed in vehicular homicides and bus accidents on the way to or from school? If we add suicides, sports-related deaths, and student-perpetrators killed by police officers responding to crime scenes, then we can easily swell those numbers. If we count only students fatally shot (not knifed or bludgeoned) by other currently-enrolled students on school grounds during school hours, then we can easily trim those numbers.

I don’t mean to make light of the safety of children. I do want to call attention to emotionally manipulative tactics that shock-and-rage journalism often exploits in order to capture your attention (for the purposes of selling it to advertisers).