March 31, 1998 in City

Listening, Understanding Important First Step

Helen Smith Special To The Los Angeles Times
 

In a recent public school-related killing, a junior high student stabbed his teacher repeatedly. His reason? The teacher had scolded him for turning up late to class. In another similar incident, a 14-year-old severed the head of an 11-year-old student and stuffed two handwritten notes in the younger child’s mouth.

After Tuesday’s ambush in Jonesboro, Ark., in which 10 people were wounded and five killed, these two incidents certainly would seem like another horrific example of the decay of America’s youth.

But it so happens that both of these school killings took place in Japan, a country Americans often think of as being filled with well-behaved and nonviolent young people.

Most people mistakenly believe that school-related killings such as these take place only in the United States. They could not be more wrong.

This view of the moral decline of America’s teenagers is exacerbated by politicians such as Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., who has called America’s teen-agers “the most violent criminals on the face of the Earth.”

If this is so, then why are European leaders turning to the United States to learn about American tactics for reducing juvenile crime, particularly in big cities? The mayor of Frankfurt, Germany, recently visited New York City to meet with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to discuss New York’s crackdown on minor offenses. Although Frankfurt’s murder rate is only one-sixth the murder rate in New York, a disturbing trend is developing: a rise in crime among European teenagers. This trend also is present in other countries in Europe such as France and Great Britain.

As Americans, it is important for us to see the broader picture of what is happening with the youth of today. Much of the media and social institutions blame the decay on a lack of values in today’s American youth. But this would not account for the increase in crime in other countries.

While it is difficult to generalize about all school-related teen killers, there do appear to be some common characteristics about school killers.

The common thread seems to be that in each killing, there has been a feeling on the part of the teenager that he could not express in words the depth of his true feelings of rage as a result of feeling rejected or hurt or stressed. It is put well by one Japanese student in response to the student who stabbed his teacher: “I too get angry, close to kireru (a Japanese expression meaning bursting into a rage) when someone who doesn’t know my situation scolds me. While I’ve always managed to control myself … my frustration accumulates. I cannot possibly tell others my true feelings.”

In a letter, Luke Woodham, the 16-year-old youth who shot up a school in Pearl, Miss., indicates the depth of his rage: “I am not insane. I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated everyday. I did this to show society if they push us, we will push back.”

In most of the school killings, the killers also wrote a note about their intentions or told someone of their intended crime. Typically, school killers do not strike without warning. Usually, they leave clues that announce what they are planning, well in advance of their crimes.

The problem is that, all too often, no one is listening. In order to understand the minds of teen killers, one must understand how they think: To be rejected or considered a nobody is often worse for them than death.

They prey upon us because we have turned a deaf ear.

How much easier might it have been had someone taken more seriously the note Luke Woodham gave a classmate detailing his intentions? And on Tuesday, perhaps an ambush would have been only a fistfight or an angry insult if someone had taken the time to treat the threats and the two young boys as if they were important.

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