Two armed boys, two views, five dead Jonesboro massacre: While adults saw suspects as 'normal' youths, peers noted trouble brewing.

March 26, 1998

HOW DO YOU prevent tragedies such as the one that stunned Jonesboro, Ark., when two boys in fatigues ambushed their middle-school classmates and killed four girls and a teacher?

Open your eyes.

After the shooting in the northeast Arkansas college town, a teacher described one suspect as a " 'yes sir, no sir' kind of kid." Another staffer said the youths' worst prior offenses were "talking too much." Another assured that they were not "troublemakers."

Classmates, however, painted a different picture.

One youth had pulled a knife at school Monday, threatening an ex-girlfriend. He warned peers that he "had a lot of killing to do" and that classmates would find out the next day if they "live or die."

No one took him seriously, a day before he and his friend came to school somehow stocked to the teeth with ammunition.

Adults see a "normal," well-adjusted child; other children see, but fail to seek help for, a disturbed, distraught peer unable to cope with a broken romance or ridicule. That describes the Arkansas tragedy and the fatal shootings by teen-agers last year at schools in West Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss.

At other times, adults know and do nothing, as when a student at Baltimore's Northern High School was killed last month after administrators, teachers and others failed to respond to reports that he was being tormented.

Like the boys in Jonesboro, Americans have no shortage of easy targets at which to vent their outrage:

Guns that are too readily available to young people without the maturity, supervision or training to use them safely.

A mass media that exports a sewage stream of glorified violence to small towns, cities and suburbs alike.

Video games that make sport of dismemberment.

An economy that, while strong, is creating new stresses.

Too many broken homes.

Attorney General Janet Reno will likely turn up these and other causes when she responds to President Clinton's request to analyze this malady that has repeatedly rocked the nation.

Yet if adults, especially parents, were more attuned to the problems of the young people close to them, none of the other factors would be so potent.

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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