Severely Tested Teens across theregion say teased Kentucky boy went to a weird, violent extreme, but they know the feeling, the endless pressure.

December 17, 1997|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Anne Haddad and Erin Texeira contributed to this article.

When Erin Robinson heard that a 14-year-old high school freshman had shot three students dead as they prayed in rural West Paducah, Ky., she was at the breakfast table in her Carney home about to leave for her own prayer group.

Then she changed her mind.

She stayed glued to "Good Morning America," listening in horrified amazement about how Michael Carneal stormed into the school and went on a rampage with a .22-caliber handgun. After a classmate persuaded him to drop the gun, three teen-age girls lay dead, one student paralyzed and three others injured. Seven hundred rounds of ammunition were found in his backpack.

In the aftermath of the Dec. 1 tragedy, the scrawny, bespectacled boy told authorities he was teased relentlessly about his size, was influenced by a violent scene in the 1995 movie "The Basketball Diaries" and "just struck out in anger at the world."

"It was so shocking," said Robinson, who usually attends a prayer group with several classmates a few times a week before school. "I know a lot of people who have been teased in their lives, and don't go off and kill someone. ... I've never heard of someone going to that extreme."

What would cause a 14-year-old to go to "that extreme"? What's it like to be 14? The Sun asked Baltimore-area students. They said they endure more stress than adults can imagine. They face pressures from peers, from life. They tease each other about their clothes, their nerdiness, their builds. And they fear for their safety. At home. At school. On the street.

"I don't think adults realize how much pressure kids are under. They have no idea," said Kandys Stanley, 14, a freshman at the competitive City College High School in Northeast Baltimore. "Peer pressure, the pressure of the whole world around you. You can't walk out of your house. Sometimes, it's in your house. You can't escape it."

For high school freshmen -- like Carneal -- it's especially intense. A new, bigger building. Credits to graduate. Dating. And "sometimes as a freshman you get the feeling you're not included in things," said Nicole Lawrence, 14, a bubbly cheerleader at Oakland Mills High in Columbia.

And then there is the teasing -- a rite of passage through adolescence. Carneal, a gawky, slight boy, told authorities that he was never spared from it. Newspaper accounts say he was nervous and immature and complained that older students made fun of him, that he'd been teased all his life.

But he's not the only kid ever to get mocked, and lots of kids take it in stride, said Kandys, a very slender girl who has glasses and straight dark hair.

"They tease me because I'm skinny, but that doesn't bother me," she said. "God made me the way he wanted me. I can't change it."

Said 15-year-old Amanda Shaw from southwest Baltimore, a 10th-grader at Western High: "That's something that people go through in high school and middle school. You can't just snap like that because they made fun of you. You can just ignore that person and move on."

A reason to tease

Fourteen-year-old Jeff Gardner, an upbeat, good-natured boy at South Carroll High, gets teased about his taste in clothes and country music. But "usually it doesn't happen that it would make me angry," he said. "It would be, just kind of like, funny."

Christy Tankosic, 16, a junior at Westminster High in Carroll County, said she and a co-conspirator once anonymously harassed another girl who unjustly got them in trouble with a substitute teacher. They tossed balls of tape and shot rubber bands at her, Christy said. They squirted lotion and hot glue into her hair.

"It was driving her crazy because she didn't know who was doing it," Christy said. After what Carneal did, she said, "I feel bad."

Kids give different reasons about why they tease each other. Some say it's because they see differences in each other, from beliefs to appearances. Sometimes it's simply because it's fun, or easy to get away with. Other times it's a way to gain credibility among peers.

"I think it's because with some kids, I don't think they're too self-confident," said Heather Cunningham, 14, a freshman at Arundel High. "They just want to take the attention off them and put it on somebody else, and some of them think it will make them more popular and funnier and they will be liked better by other people."

But the teasing can be devastating. "I guess I could see if somebody gets teased all the time, not just at school, but at their house, that would make someone go crazy," said 14-year-old Adam White, who lives in Arnold and goes to Broadneck High in Cape St. Claire.

Heather, the 14-year-old freshman at Arundel High, said that when she was 12 and 13, other kids made fun of her clothes and sneakers because she didn't have the latest name brands. "I was about to pick up a chair and throw it at one of the boys. I was right there, but I didn't really want to get in trouble, so I just left it there."

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