[Sidebar] December 16 - 23, 1999

[Features]

Don't believe the hype

Why candidates exploit fears about school violence

by Ian Donnis

[] Hillary Rodham Clinton smiled frequently and sported a tasteful brown pantsuit when she visited Cumberland High School earlier this week, but she might as well have been wearing a fright mask. Basking in an exuberant reception from hundreds of students gathered in the gym, Hillary quickly set to fanning fears about school violence. "Except for war-torn places around our globe, we are among the most violent of any societies," the first lady intoned. Speaking one week after a 13-year-old was charged with shooting and injuring four classmates at a middle school in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, she added, "Thirteen young people die every day from gunshot wounds." By the time Hillary's rap session ended an hour later, it was hard not to conclude that youth violence is pervasive and getting worse.

In fact, despite the Columbine massacre and the relatively new phenomenon of school shootings, the number of homicides by 14-to-17-year-olds has plummeted in the last six years, according to figures from the Clinton administration's own US Justice Department. And schools -- which have actually gotten less dangerous during the same period -- remain a safer environment for kids than the streets and even their own homes, according to the US Education Department. But you're unlikely to hear Hillary or other candidates acknowledge this reality, because it doesn't serve their political interests.

Although American society is violent, our concern about the impact of gunplay varies sharply with the socioeconomic status of the victims. There were relatively few outpourings of concern by politicians -- and little middle-class hand-wringing -- when the crack epidemic of the late '80s and the widespread availability of handguns sparked an unprecedented level of youth violence in predominantly minority neighborhoods in Providence, Boston and other cities. But Columbine, and the resulting wave of copycat threats, served notice to suburban America that our kids might be in danger.

That's why, even at this early point in the campaign season, making at least a token expression of protest about school violence is a staple for candidates on the stump. Context remains the missing ingredient. As a longtime advocate for children, Hillary surely knows better. But what she failed to mention about the 13 kids who die each day from gunshots is that they typically suffer the violence not in schools, but on the streets of America's poorest neighborhoods.

Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University, expects rhetoric about school violence to intensify as the 2000 campaigns get going in earnest. "Everyone wants to talk about school violence," he says. "It's a subject that's very much on the minds of voters, but I haven't seen any spirit of bipartisanship to try to grapple with the issues. Politicians are more interested in scoring political points."

The average observer has good reason to be confused about this situation. Violent crime has dropped sharply through the '90s in most cities, and Americans are less likely to die from gunfire than at any time since the '60s, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November. But the school shootings that started to erupt in recent years indicate deeper problems in our culture and serve as a blunt reminder of how violence can flare unexpectedly. The disproportionate amount of media attention given to these attacks -- once again, without context -- results in an exaggerated sense of menace and anxiety.

[] The December 6 shooting in Oklahoma, for example, was the most prominently displayed story the next day on the front of the Providence Journal and scores of other newspapers across the country. Prominently played on the Journal's jump page were a box highlighting nine school shootings since 1997 and a story about the teenage boys who, after assaulting one counselor and tying up another, fled a wilderness camp in Utah for troubled youths. Both stories are legitimate, but without any perspective on the extent of teen violence, the implicit message remains: the youth are out of control.

In reality, the frequency of homicides by 14-to-17-year-olds tripled from 1985 to 1993, from 10 per 10,000 people to 30 per 10,000, before dropping to 18 per 10,000 in 1997, according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. The overall rate of school-related crime for students, ages 12-18, fell from 164 crimes per 1000 students in 1993 to 128 per 1000 in 1996, according to the Department of Education.

It's telling that a random selection of Cumberland High students who spoke with the Phoenix before Hillary's arrival expressed no concerns about danger at school. "Generally, I think they've done a good job of making the kids feel safe," said Jonathan Sun, a 16-year-old senior, in a typical remark.

For her part, though, the first lady-turned-New York senate candidate tried having it both ways, praising young Americans as "the best young people in the world and probably the best we've ever had." But then she happily picked up the thread when a student paraphrased one of his teachers and anxiously asked, "If schools are this bad now, what will it be like in 10 years?"

If the threat of school violence is really as dire as Hillary suggested, one wonders why her Secret Service detail focused their energy in searching the camera bags of print and broadcast photographers, rather than in screening the students from nine communities who were invited to the carefully choreographed event.

WHEN A Cumberland High junior decried the tendency of some teachers to ignore bullying, Hillary instantly supported the notion that school discipline is a thing of the past. "More teachers are feeling more and more powerless," she groused. "Adults have to reassert authority . . . and young people have to be supportive of that."

As any educator knows, however, Columbine changed the rules. While children have issued threats for generations, usually without any real inclination toward violence, there's probably not a principal in America now who will run the risk of dismissing a youthful taunt for fear that the kid's going to come back packing heat.

And as the New York Times recently reported, the national proliferation of zero tolerance policies and harsher discipline for even relatively benign forms of youthful behavior began with the Safe and Drug-Free School Act of 1994. The act mandated the loss of federal funds for any school that doesn't expel a student found with a weapon.

The Columbine attack sparked copycat threats and anxiety at many schools in Rhode Island and across the country. In Warren, the situation at Kickemuit Middle School was no different. Eight students were suspended in May after being identified as part of a group called the Scottish Mafia, but about half were eventually found blameless of any wrongdoing. The suspension of one 12-year-old boy, who had been threatened with expulsion, was rescinded after he was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Steve Brown, director of the ACLU's Rhode Island chapter, describes the episode as representative of "a needless overreaction" that sparked dozens of calls to the local ACLU after the Littleton shootings. Kickemuit officials remain reluctant to talk in detail about the matter, but they defend their handling of it as justified. "I'll err on the side of caution every day of the week," says Paul Canario, who was the school's acting principal at the time.

Civil libertarians aren't alone in believing that overblown fears about school shootings, combined with federal mandates, have sparked an overreaction in punishing students. After holding steady for two years, the number of student suspensions in Rhode Island jumped by roughly 8000, from 34,900 in 1997-98 to 42,800 in 1998-99, according to George A. McDonough, coordinator for safe and drug-free schools at the state Department of Education.

"I'm guessing that right after Columbine, teachers at small elementary schools who never had suspended anyone felt the need to take action, because someone had written a note or gotten someone in trouble," McDonough says. "The majority were not for drugs, weapons or even threats. A lot are for things that could probably be corrected, like squeaking sneakers in the hall or being late for class."

Rather than criminalizing age-appropriate forms of student behavior, McDonough advocates creating schools that are highly personalized -- where students are well-known and advisers, mentors and after-school programs are widely accessible. The need for these kind of efforts, particularly in an age when children and parents spend less time together than in previous generations, is all too clear. A study released earlier this year by the state Department of Health found that 24 percent of the students surveyed had considered suicide and 10 percent have attempted it.

It's these kind of indicators that worry observers like James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston who has advised the Justice Department on youth violence. As Fox said during a speech at West Virginia University in August, "The shootings in Jonesboro, West Paducah and Littleton may be unusual and extraordinary, but they are the tip of a much larger iceberg of anti-social behavior increasingly exhibited by children."

Citing the presence of 40 million children under the age of 10, more than at any time since the original baby boomers were in school, Fox and other criminologists have long warned that the next five years could make the youth violence that accompanied the crack epidemic of the late '80s and early '90s look rosy by comparison.

It's encouraging that many local educators recognize that it's the behavior, not the appearance of students, that they need to be concerned with. As Warwick School Superintendent Robert J. Shapiro says, "The fact is that thousands and thousands of kids listen to Marilyn Manson and they're good kids." It's good, too, that Cumberland and other school districts around Rhode Island, with help from the US departments of Education and Justice, are recognizing the importance of shrinking class sizes, adding after school programs and helping to reduce the excess of idle, unsupervised time faced by too many young people.

It's these kinds of efforts, rather than exaggerated statements about the current danger of American schools, that offer the best hope for preventing increases in youth violence. As the November 2000 elections approach, Hillary Clinton and other candidates would do well to put school violence in perspective while working to enhance the safety of young people.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

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