America's young ending disputes, lives of potential with violence


July 20, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

After a year of bullying by a classmate, a high school freshman in rural Pennsylvania shot him in the head last May during biology class.

On the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone two weeks later, police say, a 10-year-old boy ended an argument by driving a steak knife into the chest of his 12-year-old friend.

This month in a central Florida subdivision, a 14-year-old was accused of shooting and killing his younger step-sister.

Snapshots of human tragedy, these stories of youth homicide flash across the front pages of newspapers and television screens every week in America. Behind the words and images lie an increasing number of lost lives and potential.

They point to a change in human relations that concerns authorities: young people are killing more often in America, and often they are killing each other.

Between 1965 and 1990, the murder arrest rate for juveniles age 10 to 17 grew by 332 percent, according to a recent FBI study. And, while that part of the youth population declined by more than 2 million, the number of arrests mushroomed from 822 to 3,284.

There has been a "tremendous change in attitude," says James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "It reflects a desensitization to violence."

Researchers lay blame for the increase on the usual suspects of social science: dysfunctional families, substance abuse, television violence, child abuse and poverty. The declining influence of churches and schools have left children with fewer guidelines.

But the most obvious and fatal factor, they say, is guns.

More and more often they are found in the hands, pants pockets and even purses of kids. Instead of bare knuckles, young people these days are more likely than ever to solve conflicts with bullets.

Turning to guns

Between 1950 and 1990 the number of guns in the United States rose from 54 million to 201 million, according to estimates by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Twenty years ago, "what might have been a bloody nose or a stabbing, today is a homicide," says Charles Ewing, a forensic psychologist and author of two books on juvenile murder.

And there are other changes.

As drug-related violence took off in the 1980s, the news media and general public came to view youth homicide as largely a black, urban problem. Recent evidence, however, shows that it is becoming a broader societal issue.

Kids in white communities are killing more and more often.

The murder arrest rate among whites age 10 to 17 grew by 425 percent between 1965 and 1990, according to the FBI study. That is 93 percent more than the national rate during the same period.

That startling increase in percentage is based on relatively small numbers, researchers note. In 1965, 306 white juveniles age 10 to 17 were charged with murder, according to the FBI. By 1990, the number had risen to 1,283.

As violence has moved to the suburbs and rural areas so has the media's eye, researchers say. Murder in these places still remains fairly unusual.

And lucrative. The day the boy in rural Pennsylvania shot and killed his classmate last May, two movie studios called his mother requesting the film rights. She sold them to pay for his defense.

"There was a racial spin," said Philadelphia sociology professor Charles Gallagher, describing news media coverage of the slaying. "This made front-page news because it was white, suburban."

Killing is spreading

From small towns to working and middle-class bedroom communities, young people seem to be killing in places they never used to before. Rural Red Hill, Pa.; the swampland of Charles City County, Va.; the seaside suburb of Dartmouth, Mass.

For many communities, the killings mark a collective loss of innocence and realization that no place in America is quite safe anymore. It could have happened anywhere, residents often say.

And that is the point.

Communities struggle for answers, but there has been little research in this realm of juvenile homicide. Explanations are often impressionistic and anecdotal.

Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, has studied more than 60 white juvenile killers over the past decade. Common characteristics have included poor problem-solving skills, lack of male role models and unemployment.

Cases where ordinary conflict explodes into murder have become more common, he says. The first case he studied involved a 16-year-old boy who killed a 14-year-old girl because she called him "Pizza face."

'All classes represented'

The majority of the killers he has studied come from working-class, broken homes. Although, Mr. Cornell adds, "you certainly find all classes represented."

Mr. Fox, of Northeastern University, lays part of the blame on declining institutions.

Budget problems have forced suburban and city governments to cut afternoon programs and sports. As more women have either opted or been forced to work outside the home, their supervisory role in neighborhoods has diminished.

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