It can happen anywhere. And it does.
Long numbed to the violence of the inner city, many Americans still react with shock when violence shatters the serenity of small-town life.
On Tuesday, yet another community lost its sense of security when gunfire claimed the lives of four young girls and a teacher and wounded eleven other students and teachers outside a middle school at Jonesboro, Ark. Two boys, ages 11 and 13, were in custody after the shooting.
The city of 46,000 in northeastern Arkansas joins a growing list of communities that have confronted sudden violence in their schools.
In December, three students were shot to death and five others wounded at a West Paducah, Ky., high school. Fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal was arrested in the attack.
In Pearl, Miss., two students were shot to death and seven others were wounded in October. Luke Woodham, 16, faces charges in that attack as well as in the killing of his mother.
“I think the wake-up call we’re getting here is that it can happen anywhere,” said Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. “What this says is violence is no respecter of persons or geography. It is just as likely to come to suburbia or rural America as to an urban area.”
In the aftermath of the Kentucky shooting, President Clinton directed the Justice Department to launch a major initiative studying school violence.
Many urban schools, Stephens said, have taken precautions to limit crime and violence. “It’s easy to presume that it’s not going to happen in suburbia and rural America,” Stephens said.
Dr. Pamela L. Riley, director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence at North Carolina State University, suggests that “safe school planning should be on the top of the agenda for every school in the country.”
Riley said that rural areas are not as isolated as they once were “and are just as likely to be faced with the kinds of problems that involve crime on school campuses as are other areas of the country.”
And increasing numbers of adolescents are resorting to violence.
“As a whole, young people are dealing with similar kinds of issues - it’s only the settings that are different,” Stephens said. “They still want someone to accept them, approve of them, and appreciate them. They’re oftentimes looking for friendships and relationships that seem difficult to create.”
Many children today have “too much unstructured time, and they’re just looking for things to do,” said Canary Hogan, president of the American School Counselors Association.
Middle school is a time when students typically start to pull away from their parents and spend more time with their friends, she said. That shift attention can lead to increased peer influence and pressure.
One key to preventing such inner turmoil from boiling over is to make sure conflicts are addressed and resolved as they occur.
“It’s really important for students to have that opportunity to talk about what’s happening,” she said.
From peer mediation to the intervention of adults in or beyond the school, Hogan said, adolescents need help working through conflicts in a healthy way.
“Kids will seek recognition and identity, some type of importance,” said Jan Gallagher, president of the Texas Counseling Association. “And it can be positive or negative. ‘Just notice me.’ And that coupled with probably the easy access to weapons and coupled with their invincibility. It was probably done more to scare than to hurt, and it probably got out of hand,” she said.
When spurned, rejected or bullied, some adolescents resort to violence.
“Youngsters … are much more willing to bring guns to school and unfortunately using guns to resolve problems,” Stephens said. “They want to resolve their problems quickly, and with a measure of finality that is oftentimes rather scary. It seems that they are much more willing to utilize violence as a means to solve problems.”
In December, a 14-year-old boy in Stamps, Ark., shot and wounded two students. He later told investigators he was tired of being bullied.
“As we look at the profile of perpetrators, the majority were first victims,” Stephens said. “It’s a contagious cycle of violence that builds and escalates and is passed on to the next victim.”
And in rural areas, as in urban areas, guns are readily available.
“In rural areas, hunting is very popular, and as a result, a lot of kids have access to weapons,” said Rebecca Atnafou, assistant director of the Children’s Safety Network. “They’re taught how to use a weapon at a very young age.”
But in coping with the stresses and problems of adolescence, social and counseling services may not be as readily available outside the city.
Although little is known about the boys suspected in Tuesday’s shooting, students who strike out in such a violent way tend to challenge authority figures and have regular conflicts with other students, according to Hogan.
If those tensions aren’t detected and addressed, she said, the level of conflict can escalate and manifest itself in ugly ways.
Graphic: School killings
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