Pent-up Teen Rage Seeps Into Suburbs Fatal shootings at Kentucky high school just latest in surge of violence

December 07, 1997|By ERIN TEXEIRA

I am not 10 years out of high school - my reunion approaches this spring - yet I'm feeling decidedly out of touch with teen-agers 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 to rough zones of city poverty. Too often, adults fail to help these kids.

Three teen-agers 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 had allegedly 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 one recent afternoon 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 does not know why they kicked and pummeled him, why they broke his jaw. He'll wear a steel plate in his jaw for the rest of his life. Four boys were expelled.

This came only months after a be-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 [members of the Board of Education] 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 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. In contrast to those of 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.

After 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."

L Figuring out why the violence is spreading is the hard part.

In fact, no one has estimated how many deadly weapons are in the hands of youths, and scant research has been done to chart trends in teen-age 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 teen-agers 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.

The Centers for Disease Control Injury Center - which treats violence as a public health issue - has issued a study that 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 Monday morning. 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 charged in the shooting 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 us not forget that teen-agers are safer in schools than they are in shopping malls or at home; shooting sprees are not normal to the average American high school student. These cases are aberrations.

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