Who's Really Killing Our Schoolkids?

Mike Males, a doctoral candidate in social ecology at UC Irvine, is the author of "Framing Youth: Ten Myths about the New Generation," to be published in October

A worker in Inglewood sprays an office with a semiautomatic handgun, killing two. A former employee rakes the Caltrans yard in Orange with an assault rifle, killing four. A man in pastoral upper Ojai guns down two neighbors, the latter in front of her shrieking 3-year-old. A rifle-wielding father in suburban Simi Valley chases his wife and three children, shooting all to death. A Huntington Beach man slaughters five. These cases represent just a few, selected from our own backyard, of dozens of recent "rage killings" by adults nationwide. U.S. adults are eight to 20 times more likely to murder with guns than adults in other Western nations.

Lamentably, official reactions to the recent spate of gun killings at schools around the country do not take into account this disturbing statistic. Its omission misleadingly gives credence to assertions by President Bill Clinton and experts that today's grown-ups confront a younger generation desensitized to brutality by its own "culture" of violent media and seemingly "unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their actions." In truth, it is grown-up society, beginning with the president, that is desensitized by the commonality of real adult violence and that refuses to take responsibility for violent homes and communities that breed more violent kids.

Of 20 million middle-school and high-school students, fewer than a dozen have killed at school this year. Of 20,000 secondary schools nationwide, only about 10 have reported a murder on campus. It is entirely justified to deplore any killing at a school. It is another matter for self-righteous adults to lose all perspective and scold all young people. The schoolkids reacting in revulsion and tears to the mayhem on their campuses, not the tiny number of shooters, are the true representatives of the next generation.

Conversely, the most extremely disturbed fraction of our young mimic their adult counterparts. The school shootings by students over the last eight months killed 11 youths and six adults. That is fewer kids than are murdered by parents, and fewer adults than are killed by partners, in just two days of household violence in the United States.

The youth culture of violence is the adult culture of violence. There is no difference. It is striking how closely school shootings resemble "rage killings" by adults. All involve males, none poor, nearly all white, nearly all armed with sophisticated firepower, all triggered by fury at personal slight--dismissal from work or expulsion from school, or rejection by wives, girlfriends, co-workers or fellow students.

The president struggles to "make sense of the senseless" student shootings. His struggle should expand beyond "youth violence"--which comprises 13% of violent crime and 8% of murder, the FBI reports--to the mostly overlooked brutalities in America. On the day of the Jonesboro, Ark., school killings, a Daly City, Calif. mother was arrested for suffocating her three children with duct tape. A few days after the West Paducah, Ky., student shootings, three West Virginia parents were arrested for burning down their house, deliberately immolating five children. The day after the Springfield, Ore., school cafeteria massacre, an Arleta mother was arrested for murdering her two young children and burying them in the national forest.

Recent studies estimate that gunplay at school kills 20 to 30 youths a year, though there is no evidence the toll is higher today than in the past. By contrast, studies by the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect show that 2,000 to 3,000 children and youths are murdered each year by parents or caretakers, a toll that clearly is rising. Annual surveys of high school students, by Monitoring the Future researchers, report that weapons-related violence in schools is no higher today than in the 1970s. But the rate of children being murdered by their parents doubled during that time.

In response to the school shootings, the president wants to enhance children's safety. But his own agencies' figures show that the best way to do that would be to target the American family. Three of four young murder victims--90% of them under age 12 and 70% of them aged 12-17--are killed by adults, not by juveniles. A 1994 survey, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, of hospital emergency records of 900,000 treatments for violent-crime injuries found that such injuries were eight times more likely (410,000) to occur in the home, and five times more likely (246,000) in the workplace, than in schools (55,000). It is sobering that Americans of all ages are far safer in youth-dominated environments, such as schools, than in adult-dominated settings, such as homes and work sites.

Despite these alarming statistics, the president has never given a major address (not even a radio talk) focusing on children victimized by violence in the home. Even though family violence is the chief killer of children under age 13 and women of all ages, the Centers for Disease Control and other violence-prevention agencies barely acknowledge it exists. In this climate of heightened family chaos and high-level denial, the wonder is that school carnage isn't more common.

Perversely, officially fanned fear is directed at schools, one of society's safest places from homicide. In Los Angeles, 15,000 people have been murdered during the 1990s. Five occurred at school. Of 1,500 murders in Orange County during this decade, none took place at school. This is a stunning safety record for institutions serving 2 million students, including 700,000 teenagers whom we tend to stereotype as impulsively violent. No wonder, amid incessant official and media alarms about "epidemic" and "rising school violence," recent surveys find well over 90% of students and teachers rate their schools as safe.

Odds and statistics are of no comfort to those victimized by violence, to be sure. But larger policy, resource allocation and academic analysis should focus on the biggest dangers to kids. The Clinton administration's own agencies have assembled reams of ignored statistics showing that today's teens are being raised by a parent generation displaying exploding rates of domestic violence, property crime, drug offenses, addiction and family instability. Unfortunately, talking about family violence, about how uncannily teenage behaviors reflect those of adults (good and bad), does not meet the needs of politicians and politically attuned authorities. Clinton's presidency evidences the disturbing extent to which the most serious crime and health issues have been refashioned, through exhaustive polling and focus groups, into popular moral fables. In this age of political handlers, it is hard to imagine a national leader willing to take on the distressing "adult" problem.

To the contrary. Conventional wisdom holds that grown-ups vote and kids don't, that no politician wins today without flattering the baby boomers, and that '90s wedge-issue politicking demands moralistic "us versus them" positioning. When authorities treat the worst dangers young people face as taboo topics because they are impolitic to raise, they dismiss young people themselves as unimportant and falsely hold up the younger generation as a symbol of all that has gone wrong with society. The question is not, "Where are the adults?" but "Where is adulthood?"

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