August 21, 1998


Opinion

When Children Kill

by Starita Smith

Hysteria and paranoia seem to be driving the current national debate on what to do about kids who kill.

The seven-month series of intensely covered shooting sprees at American schools proves that there is no safe place from violence. Most of the schools in Oregon, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Tennessee where children as young as 11 years old shot their classmates are located in the kinds of communities most often characterized as safe.

But the danger to these safe communities didn't come from outside. It came from their own children.

Guns have been on inner-city campuses for so long that many black and Latino students think nothing of going through metal detectors every morning. The campus police officers are just as well-known to the students as the football coach.

Our nation has a strange way of viewing these problems. We believe that as long as problems occur in one kind of neighborhood, they will not spill over into other kinds of neighborhoods.

Less kindly put, we believe that only "those people," have "those problems."

It is telling that after more than a decade of big-city school shootings with hardly a mention in the press, the school shootings in tiny towns and suburbs now dominate the national news.

We're all in the same boat. With more concern and a wider variety of skills, knowledge, and ideas focused on youth violence, perhaps this country will finally do something that to make serious inroads into solving the problem.

Recent research shows that the child who kills someone typically has a family member for a victim. Eric Lotke, a researcher at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group, analyzed hundreds of cases where children had been convicted of being principally responsible for a homicide.

He found that 80 percent of the young people age 14 and under (roughly the same age as most of the boys who have been accused of the latest spate of school shootings) killed members of their own families. The most common victims were abusive parents, stepparents or boyfriends of their mothers.

If we really want to do something about the youngest perpetrators of homicide, then we have to do more to protect all children from abuse. For every homicide committed, there are dozens of lesser violent crimes such as beatings and sexual assaults that leave an impact on their victims.

We cannot go on pretending to be serious about fighting child abuse when our child-protection agencies are too overburdened to do their job. We need to concentrate on cultivating more foster families and safe places for these children while they and their families receive help.

We also need a stronger network of support systems for young people with all kinds of problems. It's crucial to spot the problem and lend a helping hand before the rage becomes uncontrollable.

As gang violence became more prevalent in the 1980s and early 1990s' most states decided that the way to deal with youthful criminals was to crack down on them and try teenagers as adults. One Texas legislator said right after the Jonesboro, Ark., shootings that 11-year-olds should be eligible for the death penalty.

That's no answer. Other 11-year-olds will not be deterred. We need to prevent our kids form becoming killers, not execute them afterwards.

The bullets ringing out in the schoolyards around this country should compel all of us to pay more attention to the needs of our children.

Starita Smith is an Austin, Texas-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in Emerge, Moderna, the American School Board journal, black Issues in Higher Education and other publications. She has worked as an award-winning reporter and editor for the Austin American-Statesman, The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch and the Gary Post-Tribune

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