I am not 10 years out of high school my reunion approaches in spring yet I’m feeling decidedly out of touch with teenagers as news surfaces of another scene of surreal violence in an American high school.
A pulsing rage among American youth is seeping into suburban and rural areas once considered safe havens. It is not, as once thought, isolated in rough zones of city poverty. Too often, adults fail to help these kids.
Three teenagers holding a prayer meeting in Kentucky were fatally shot last week by a classmate. Five students were wounded. This comes two months after a ninth-grader, who allegedly had stabbed and killed his mother hours earlier, fired into a school crowd in Mississippi. He killed two schoolmates and wounded seven.
Closer to home, in Howard County, I lingered in the quiet after-school corridors of Columbia’s Long Reach High School recently as a student described being brutally beaten by several classmates.
Kenny Magan, 17, pointed to stairwell corner: This, he said, is where I tucked my head into my hands and tried to protect my face. Over here is where I tried to scramble away. He still doesn’t know why they kicked and pummeled him, and broke his jaw. He’ll have a steel plate in his jaw for the rest of his life. Four boys were expelled.
This came only months after a well-loved teacher at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia died of a heart attack after breaking up a fight among more than a dozen students. Five students were expelled, four suspended.
Although students were grief-stricken at the loss of biology teacher Lawrence C. Hoyer, they said fighting and violence are accepted parts of school life. The mother of one expelled student picketed the school to protest the expulsion of her daughter.
The punishment, she said, was too harsh.
“I don’t believe they (board of education members) would have put as much impact on this fight if he hadn’t died,” she said.
We’re not talking the mean streets of Los Angeles or New York. This is Columbia and suburban West Paducah, Ky., and even a small town like Pearl, Miss., population 22,000 - quiet suburbs to which people often move hoping to flee problems like school violence.
Between 1984 - when I started high school in Southern California - and 1993, juvenile arrests for homicides in United States more than tripled, from 973 to 3,284. Unlike past years, the rates in suburban and rural areas reflected an upsurge in violence: Juvenile homicide arrests grew by 175 percent in suburban communities and 74 percent in rural ones, FBI Uniform Crime Reports show.
Most young killers are boys, their average age 16.
Homicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-to 24-year-olds, the third among 10-to 14-year-olds.
Based on discussions with teachers and administrators, Peter Blauvelt, director of the National Alliance for Safe Schools in Prince George’s County, is convinced that the level of violence is rising among youths in nonurban areas. Blauvelt conducts workshops on youth violence around the country.
“In urban areas, we are more attuned to the violent acts,” he said. “In suburban areas, there’s this attitude that nothing could ever happen here. But you know what? It absolutely can. No one is immune to it anymore. That’s what we’re seeing.”
Figuring out why the violence is spreading is the hard part.
In fact, so far, no one has estimated how many deadly weapons are in the hands of youths and scant research has been done to chart trends in teenage violence. To gauge the level of teen violence, we rely on school suspension records, homicide rates and other data collected by authorities. But this is a fraction of the violence that occurs and goes unreported.
One study shows that American teenagers lash out in violence about as often as their counterparts in other industrialized countries, but they are much more likely to use guns and other weapons to settle disputes.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control Injury Center, which treats violence as a public health issue, indicates about one in eight students carries a weapon to school. Consequently, teachers are increasingly shying away from cracking down on students. If nothing else, the perception of increased violence among youth is real.
That perception comes from stories like Michael Carneal’s - the 14-year-old loner with a clean record who allegedly stalked a prayer group in the Kentucky school and opened fire early Tuesday. Preliminary evidence shows he had no targets in mind. One of the three girls killed was a close friend.
Luke Woodham, the 16-year-old shooter in Pearl, Miss., also was described as a loner who had been teased all his life. Pent-up rage apparently sparked the school massacres. Both boys had warned friends beforehand.
Let’s not forget that teenagers are safer in schools than in shopping malls or at home. Shooting sprees are not normal to the average American high school student. These cases are aberrations.
Still, some sort of cultural shift has happened in the last decade. More than ever, violence is deemed an appropriate response to anger and frustration in society. Increasingly, the good guys in movies and on television rack up the biggest, bloodiest body counts on screen - and saunter into the sunset as the credits roll. Drivers use guns to settle traffic disputes. Musicians shoot and kill one another over regional rivalries.
Guns are more accessible and commonplace than ever. Handgun homicides in the nation increased 25 percent from 1990 to 1994, according to FBI statistics.
If anyone should be able to empathize with youth frustration and rage, it should be someone like me who is not long out of adolescence. Memories of tough high school years are fresh in my mind. As much as my parents tried to shield me, I also was raised on violent films and television shows.
Still, like most adults, I don’t get it. Why are these kids killing each other? When I was in high school, teen suicide was the hot topic. We teens learned to detect the early warning signs - verbal hints and the tendency to hurt one’s self. We learned how to intervene when we thought our friends were at risk.
Now, suicides have been surpassed by homicides. Yet we know so little about the children who hurt others, about those who become killers.
It’s time to make youth violence a cause “celebre,” as suicide once was. Whatever it takes - just get kids talking and learning about it, and cooperating with adults when they think a classmate could be a danger to others.
Just as we were taught to take seriously what could have been dismissed as idle suicide talk, so today’s youth might need to learn to listen when a picked-on kid says something is going to happen.
Let’s do it now, before another sad, angry teenager walks into school with a gun - or clenched fists to hurt another child.