It’s been a season of horror stories. And these stories of violence aren’t set in a dark alley at midnight … but in the halls and classrooms of America’s schools.
In Bethel, Alaska, a 16-year-old boy shoots and kills the school principal–and a classmate who had teased him.
In Pearl, Mississippi, a 16-year-old high school sophomore pulls a rifle on a crowd of classmates and opens fire. Two students are killed in the attack and seven others are wounded. Police arrest the boy, Luke Woodham, as he tries to drive away. Days later, five other students at the high school are arrested; police say they may have known in advance about Woodham’s plans.
In Paducah, Kentucky, a tall, thin freshman named Michael Carneal tells a curious teacher that the four guns he has rolled up in an old blanket are “a poster for my science project.” Waiting in Heath High School’s central foyer, where a group of teens were ending their morning prayer group, Michael pulls a semiautomatic pistol from his backpack and fires 12 shots, killing three girls and wounding five other students. Carneal’s friend Ben Strong, a minister’s son who was the prayer group leader, talks Michael into giving him the gun. Later that week, at the funeral for the three girls who died, classmates write messages in markers on their caskets–and Michael Carneal’s older sister sings with the choir.
Most people like to think of schools as safe places–even in neighborhoods that aren’t safe. Maybe that was never quite as true as moms and dads liked to think: Even Mark Twain, writing more than a century ago, had vivid memories of schoolyard bullies and fistfights.
But there is a difference today–in how much violence there is at school, and in the increased level of the violence. “More than 2,000 students are physically attacked on school grounds each hour,” says a National Education Association study. “Confrontations that once resulted in scratches and bruises are now ending in gunshots, stab wounds, and even death.”
How much violence you experience often depends on where you live and where you attend school. Teens in private schools or schools in affluent neighborhoods generally report that guns and gangs aren’t a part of their world–while schools in neighborhoods with a high rate of crime and violence tend to mirror the violence outside.
But school violence isn’t found only at inner-city schools: Suburban, small-town, and “country” school districts report plenty of problems, too–even the city-style gangs that sometimes move to small-town or rural locations hoping to find a lack of organized law enforcement. One Virginia judge, pointing to rising juvenile violence in the rural area he serves, noted that teenagers see the same violent movies and TV shows whether they live in the country or in urban areas. He felt media violence was helping shape teen behavior.
Fear of Violence
Surveys show that, whether or not they’ve directly experienced violence, all American teens are increasingly aware and afraid of violence at school and in their out-of-school lives–afraid enough to be making some changes in how they live. A recent Harris poll of 2,000 teenagers found:
* One in eight teens reported carrying a weapon for protection.
* One in nine teens (and one in three from high-crime neighborhoods) said fear of violence had caused them to cut classes or stay home from school at times.
* About one in five teens reported that they had changed to a different (and, they hoped, safer) circle of friends.
* Almost half the teens polled said they’d made some kind of change in their daily routine because of crime and violence: avoiding certain parks or playgrounds, for example, or taking a different route to and from school.
Violence “is this generation’s Vietnam,” says Erin Donovan, who works with a group sponsoring violence-prevention programs in 40 states. Donovan notes at least one encouraging finding from the Harris poll, though–nine out of 10 teens said they’d be willing to take an active role in trying to do something about violence through “mentoring, education, or community awareness programs.”
Feeding the Monster
Where does the violence come from–and what keeps it coming? The answers aren’t simple. Here are some pieces of the puzzle:
A loss of “connectedness”: Parents work, and kids stay home alone. Neighbors don’t know neighbors. Community groups are finding it harder to recruit volunteers. Teens working after-school jobs say there’s no time to hang with friends anymore. Increasingly, many Americans feel isolated from other people. Some psychologists say this lack of connection contributes to the kind of self-centered, “I’m gonna get mine” attitude that can easily turn into violent behavior when somebody gets in the way.
Lack of family support and control: According to the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, today’s teens spend much less time with parents and other adults than they did just a few decades ago, and more time “in front of the television or with their peers in … unsupervised environments.” Parents, who may be struggling to make it financially, working long hours, or focused on their own problems often aren’t providing the warmth, guidance, and discipline that help kids grow up into connected, caring young adults.
For teens who live in high-crime, violence-prone neighborhoods, family support is even more critical. Children surrounded by violence want adults to give them the feeling they are being held and protected–kept safe from danger, says psychologist Mohamed Seedat, who counsels teens in some of Boston’s roughest neighborhoods. When parents and other adults a ‘ re uncaring, abusive, or simply don’t have the power to protect, says Seedat, children and teens feel abandoned and angry–and may fight back with violence.
Media influences: The “glitzy” portrayal of violence in, the movies, on TV, and in music videos may not make you become a person who turns violently on somebody else. But Harvard violence expert Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith says that media violence not only “tells [us] that violence is an everyday occurrence, a justified form of self-defense,” but it also makes violence look easy and attractive:
The camera loves action, especially violent action. [But] in real life, mashed and mangled bodies are not attractive. In real life, the impact of a moment of violence reverberates through time. Years later, parents are still mourning the loss of a child, children are still mourning the loss of a parent, a police officer may still feel anguish that he was required to use deadly force, even to save his own life. On film or videotape violence begins and ends in a moment. “Bang, bang, you’re dead.”
Does viewing violence make teens act more violently in their real lives, though? A social worker in one inner-city neighborhood says he sees the huge impact that viewing violence has on fatherless boys looking for male role models. “They ask their imaginary heroes [in movies and on TV] for advice. How should they handle themselves? The answer they receive is always the same. Their heroes tell them to be tough … to fight.”
Teen subcultures/guns: Dr. C. Everett Koop (then Surgeon General) talked about violence as a “national health emergency.” Violent behavior is often a way of gaining respect within teen gangs (male or female). Combine that with easy availability of “junk guns” and knives, and you have all, the ingredients for an explosion of violence.
Alcohol, drugs, and risk-taking: Why does drinking or taking drugs so often link up with violent behavior? Psychologists say mind-altering substances tend to bring our strongest emotions to the surface–and for some teens, the strongest emotions are rage and anger. What’s more, using alcohol and drugs is often part of a pattern of violent, risky behavior that may also include smoking, binge drinking, driving drunk (or riding with an “under the influence” driver), or engaging in casual sex.
Poverty: Studies show that murder rates soar in neighborhoods where men have no jobs and women struggle to raise children alone. Poverty in the United States doesn’t just mean not having enough money to live decently. It means living closer to violence–from the streets, from gangs, from the drug culture that breeds crime, and so on.
Living in a Bad Dream
It was still nearly dark that Tuesday morning at the east entrance to Sam Houston High School in Arlington, Texas. Buses were unloading hundreds of students. When sophomore Brandon Tillman climbed off the bus, he was followed into the school building by an older student, Ronell Tate, who challenged him to “step outside” to settle a fight (whether about a girl or rival gangs, nobody’s sure).
Outside the building, Tate pulled a gun on Tillman, who turned and ran toward the school. Tate fired six shots; one wounded Tillman in the upper thigh–but the others miraculously missed the dozens of students who were in the line of fire.
The only thing freshman Lindsey Kitchell saw was the blood in the hallway outside her first-period class–and the “freaked out” look on her teacher’s face. Panicked parents, alerted to the shooting by a radio broadcast that wrongly reported a student had been killed, stormed through the halls and took almost half of the 2,300 students home for the day.
Some haven’t come back. Though many students insist “Sam” is as safe as any other school, there has been an upswing in requests for transfers. Lindsey Kitchell loves the school and says “I’m not scared. I’m not a gang member, and so they wouldn’t have any reason to hurt me. I guess I could have been shot just being there when he pulled the gun, though.” She says, however, that the atmosphere around the school is tense. “The teachers are really upset–they’re bringing metal detectors to every class and yelling at kids who aren’t wearing their badges.”
From his hospital bed, gunshot victim Brandon Tillman says he likes the school, too. “Enough to go back there?” asks a reporter. Brandon doesn’t answer.
Psychologists say exposure to a single violent event is unlikely to cause permanent psychic damage to the students who were at the shooting scene. But what happens when children and teens have to live month after month in the middle of a war zone–in communities where they may experience violence both outside and inside their homes?
Mothers in a study of one neighborhood said their children became “sad, angry, aggressive, and uncaring” after exposure to continuous violence. Children and teens may have trouble sleeping or concentrating, or relive the day’s events as nightmares. To avoid thinking about the reality of their situation, they may try to distract themselves with fantasies/daydreams or hyperactive behavior–and both can cause trouble at school. Some children develop a sense of hopelessness about the future: “If I live to be 20…” Others become outwardly tough and superaggressive; some become gun-toting gang members.
In most cases, children and teens trapped in these situations can’t just dig themselves out. They need help from adults who care about them, and communities that are willing to spend time and money on the problem. How does it work?
Finding a Better Way
What keeps teens away from violence? There’s no simple answer. But studies show that teens who don’t engage in violence have some things in common:
* a positive family environment (or sometimes just one very caring, involved adult relative or friend)
* parents who expect them to live up to standards
* plans for a good future
* something that really interests them (athletics, community service, music, etc.)
How many of these “positives” do you have in your life? Even if your home life isn’t all you’d wish for, there are ways to take charge of your life and your future–and create a positive spin for yourself!
Youth violence increases when the school doors close, and young people have nowhere to go and nothing to do at the end of the school day, on weekends, and during vacations, says the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention in San Francisco. That’s why across the country, more and more schools are putting up “open all hours” signs and giving students something to do that’s interesting, fun–and safer than the streets.
In California, these kinds of full-service schools are called “Second Shift Schools”; in other parts of the country, they’re called “Beacon Centers,” “YouthNet Centers,” “New Beginnings,” or “Village Centers.” Programs often include athletics, drama and music classes, computer and job training, counseling, health clinics, social services, parenting classes, leadership and volunteer groups. At a typical center, parents might take an ESL (English as a Second Language) class while teens play basketball or learn something new about computers.
These kinds of centers have a lot going for them. They give adults and young people a chance to reconnect and get involved in each other’s lives; give teens healthy adult role models; improve physical and mental health (leaving parents and teens better able to cope with problems); and provide opportunities for teens to act as leaders, mentors, and volunteers–letting them know they are valued and needed by the community.
At one New York City Beacon Center, a group of teenage girls would hang around the doorway of the Center, but said they were too “bad” to actually sign up for any of the classes or activities. A Beacon youth worker started to talk with the girls every night, and challenged them to come up with something they really wanted to do.
Finally, the girls agreed–they wanted to be cheerleaders! The youth worker agreed to coach them, and found parents who would make uniforms. Six weeks later, the team of six girls competed in an area cheerleading competition–and won second place. Today, the original girls are involved as leaders and peer counselors at the Beacon Center, don’t hang out with their old friends who are involved in illegal activities, have stayed in school–and the cheerleading team now has 65 members!
“Hey, man, take it easy. It was an accident.”
“Why would you want to call me that and hurt my feelings?”
“If you’ve got a problem with me, I’ll talk, but I don’t want to fight.”
“Let’s go get a Coke and give this guy some time to chill out.”
Across the country, schools are sponsoring conflict resolution programs aimed at helping teens find nonviolent ways to resolve problems: by learning comeback lines to use in “hot” situations, by role-playing in a “pretend” fight situation, and by analyzing a videotape of the fight later.
Dr. Prothrow-Stith says these kinds of exercises help teens understand that fights do not just happen, and that fighting is NOT the only way to deal with problems. Prothrow-Stith doesn’t tell teens to ignore their anger–she says it’s “a normal emotion … that each of us must learn to handle without hurting ourselves or others.” She asks teens to make lists of “What Makes Me Angry,” and of “Healthy and Unhealthy Responses to Anger.” Fighting is always on the list–and so she asks teens to analyze the possible costs and benefits of fighting: “What’s Good and What’s Bad About Fighting?” Looking at their own lists, teens (including young men who haven’t ever thought about not fighting) begin to think about how much a fight could cost them. And by watching themselves on the videotape, they begin to see how much peer pressure and rising emotions have to do with fights–and that once you start recognizing the patterns, there are ways to stop fights early on–before emotions get red-hot.
We’re not saying it’s easy. Says Prothrow-Stith: “Teens who choose not to fight are bucking the trend, or rather, they are beginning a new trend.” For teens living in a society that largely condones violence, she says, avoiding conflict doesn’t always mean a pat on the back. Sometimes, it means seeing friends being embarrassed at your walking away from a fight–or even losing those friends. But if you think your life is drifting toward violence, you need to find a new direction … even if it’s hard.
How to Play It Cool
Jack Bernal is a quiet but funny 16-year-old junior at O’Bryant High School in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a vintage but rough-edged town just east of Boston that’s home to working-class families from many different races and ethnic groups. In the recent past, the area has seen plenty of street violence.
But Jack doesn’t fight. “Mostly, I see that people get into fights for no reason–and even if they have a reason, they come out looking really dumb. I’ve got no reason to fight with anybody. I have friends, we stick together, and if somebody tries to pick a fight with me, I just say `Whatever…’ and walk away.”
Dr. Peter Stringham’s work with families and teens like Jack at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center is known around the United States. His strategies aren’t a “magic pill,” he says–but they can help you sidestep plenty of trouble.
Here’s Dr. Stringham’s seven-step process. After each step, draw on your own experiences and think about how this step might have helped you in past situations–or how you might use it in the future. (You can write ideas/notes on paper, or brainstorm with a small group of friends.)
STEP ONE: Don’t lose your temper. If trouble is brewing, keep a strong grip on your emotions–and your mouth.
STEP TWO: Learn to recognize the “triggers” for fights. “The classics are name-calling, talking about your family, swearing, and racial or ethnic slurs,” says Stringham. Hearing “trigger” words or phrases should alert you to start looking for a safe way to avoid conflict.
Jack says he thinks of himself as a “brick wall” when he’s in a tense situation. “When somebody tries to talk trash to me, about my mother or whatever, I just don’t say anything. I’m a brick wall. And they get bored and go away because I won’t let them push me into doing something I don’t want to do, which is to talk trash back at them and give them something to get madder about. Why would I do that? It’s stupid.”
STEP THREE: Keep calm, and say to yourself: “This person is upset about something, and he/she is trying to use fighting to solve the problem.” What he/she is angry about may have something–or nothing at all–to do with you, says Stringham. Your goal should be to avoid fueling this person’s anger.
STEP FOUR: Remember that part of this kid Is a decent kid. “Part of EVERY teen you meet is a decent person,” says Stringham. Remembering that makes it harder to “demonize” the person who is yelling into your face.
STEP FIVE: Try to talk calmly to the “decent side” of the other teen. “When I’m talking to teens, we work out examples: A friend is really upset, and says `You’re ugly, and so’s your mother.’ What can you say? You remember he’s your friend, he’s angry, and you DON’T want to fight him! So maybe you say, `If I’ve done something wrong, tell me, I’ll fix it. I don’t like you talking about my mother, but if you have a problem, let’s talk about it.'”
STEP SIX: Recognize that sometimes you have to walk away. “Does talking always work?” Stringham asks teens. “Of course not So sometimes you have to walk away. It’s hard to do that when your friends are saying `You can beat him.’ But fighting is the easy way out–teens know that. It takes more courage to walk away when you have to.”
STEP SEVEN: Decide if the fight is really over. “Have things really been worked out–or is somebody going to be looking for revenge? And if the fight isn’t over, you have to ask teens to identify people who can help settle this without violence. Kids will know other teens or adults who can negotiate and explain things. Our neighborhoods are full of these natural peacemakers–they’re superstars, and we all need to use them.”