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Jewish World Review March 8, 2001 / 13 Adar, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Saving kids from becoming killers -- OK, I admit it. I was relieved to learn that the 15-year-old accused of opening fire in a suburban San Diego high school was a middle-class, white kid.

I was relieved not just because I am weary of media images that portray young black males as the most fearsome creatures on American streets.

No, I was relieved because I want Americans to do something about youth violence. Unfortunately, experience shows that we tend to care more when the perpetrators happen to be white and middle-class.

That's doubly sad because it shortchanges not only the poor kid but also the better-off one whose white skin and economic affluence mask some of the same inner rage and pain that leads too often to violence against oneself and others.

If the sadly disturbed child who caused this catastrophe, which killed two and injured 13 others, had been black or Hispanic, we probably would be hearing a lot of anguished and outraged chatter about ghetto or barrio pathologies.

When a poor, black, first-grade boy killed a white 6-year-old girl in their Michigan grade school last year, for example, much of the follow-up discussion centered on how the little boy was living in a crack house where the gun used in the shooting had been left out on a bed.

This led to discussions on talk radio, cable news and the Web in which just about everyone tacked on their own political agenda. Much of the discussion centered on dysfunctional, low-income families and how new gun laws, welfare reform, more cops or media censorship are all we need to keep our kids from becoming killers.

In fact, it is becoming more common for kids in better-off neighborhoods to come from broken homes with overworked parents and other difficulties typically associated with the less-fortunate.

Problems like teen pregnancy, "latch-key" parenting and school violence are spreading from poor families to middle class and the suburbs, writes Cornell University Professor of Human Development James Garbarino in his 1999 book, "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them."

More kids are meeting the diagnosis criteria for clinical depression. More kids feel abandoned, physically and emotionally by their moms or dads or both, which has measurable impact on their sense of self-esteem. If they do not find an understanding leader to guide them, their thoughts can turn to violence and their actions easily can follow their thoughts.

If you want to prevent teen pregnancy, a youth counselor once told me, "Don't just give them a condom, give them a future."

Indeed, kids need to feel safe and protected. They need a sense of spiritual growth, which can come from religion and other guiding principles of moral reasoning. They need to feel a strong sense of their own future and their potential for success.

A solid mentoring relationship helps to reduce the impact of abandonment and loss. If caring adults don't provide the sense of family that kids need, cliques or gangs will. Or, if there is no group to provide emotional comfort, unguided kids may take matters into their own hands with violence against themselves or others.

That's the sort of advice the experts give us. It sounds like common sense. Yet, too many kids fall through the cracks every year.

That's apparently what happened at Columbine, where a massacre by two boys in April 1999 became a major national wake-up call. Like Santana High School in Santee, Calif., Columbine is the sort of high school and the sort of community that embodies the American dream. Violence in such schools shocks us because it is not supposed to happen there, yet it did.

After Columbine, instead of hearing about ghetto or barrio pathologies, we were hearing about the possibly negative impact of video games, "rage rock" music and the dehumanizing aspects of high school cliques, such as the "Goth" movement or Columbine's "Trench Coat Mafia."

I suspect that we will find our best answers to these new problems of youth violence not in the rise of new cultural fads, but in the loss of some very old and important values.

The Santee suspect, Charles Andy Williams, was bullied and abused by other kids, according to news reports. Kids stole shoes off his feet and took stuff from his backpack. He displayed the warning signs the FBI listed in its post-Columbine report. He told young friends and at least one adult of his plans up to a month before the shooting and repeated them the weekend before. He had access to guns and had a history of being taunted and picked on. The two shooters at Columbine felt like outsiders, too, by all accounts, including videos they left behind.

It's easy to make kids feel like outsiders, especially when they are early teens. They don't always need to be suffering from racism, poverty or a lack of police protection. Sometimes they just don't have the right kind of friend.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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