WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The labels put on youths who commit violent crimes not only prevent society from understanding their behavior, but also act as a barrier to solving the problem, says a Purdue University sociologist.
"Children are supposed to be innocent and vulnerable, and it's our job as adults to protect them," says J. William Spencer, associate professor of sociology. "But what happens when teen-agers become 'cold-hearted' and terrorize, or even kill, their classmates and teachers? Then adults become fearful of teens and want to keep them at an arm's length.
"As a result, we're trying to solve the problem by protecting them or punishing them without actually engaging with teen-agers because we are scared."
Spencer analyzed how teens who were involved in violent acts, such as murder and beatings, were described and profiled in the news media by politicians, experts and the general public during the 1990s. The result of Spencer's analysis is published in the February issue of Symbolic Interaction.
"How we understand the problem shapes our solution," Spencer says. "And I worry that 'Why?' is being answered incorrectly.
"We know that the quality of the parent-child relationship is a good predictor of whether a teen-ager will participate in delinquent behavior. That's why all the discussion following school shootings about installing metal detectors, or even banning backpacks because weapons can be hidden, is off the mark."
Instead, Spencer says more mentoring programs are needed to supplement adult relationships with children.
"It's clear that most parents want to connect with their children," he says. "Small things like reading to children or even watching television with them can pay big dividends later on. But some adults may not have the resources because they must work to put food on the table and pay bills. This is why programs like Big Brothers/Big Sisters and local community centers are so important."
Most recently, media coverage of youth violence has centered on school shootings. In the early 1990s, however, youth violence often was associated with drug dealings and inner-city gangs. In the middle of the decade, the coverage of youth violence focused on killings in middle-class suburbs, Spencer says.
The way school shootings - such as those at Jonesboro High School in Jonesboro, Ark., and Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. - were reported in the late 1990s, is what prompted Spencer to compare school shootings to other forms of youth violence.
"We had never seen anything like these school shootings before, partly because of the way the shootings were covered," Spencer says. "We could watch as spectators as children were escorted from schools holding hands and as parents agonized over the whereabouts of their children. It occurred to me as I read news stories about Columbine and Jonesboro that there were some commonalities with other youth violence in the early '90s."
In the mid-1990s, violent youth were dubbed "superpredators," and eventually legislation called The Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996 was proposed.
Spencer's analysis shows that even though violent youth are portrayed as evil predators, they also are profiled as innocent victims of gangs, drugs and abuse.
For example, the two shooters in the Littleton, Colo., school killings were profiled as victims of bullies as journalists and experts sought to understand why children would kill. As a result, policy-makers, the general public and news media called for new legislation to address issues such as bullying and teasing in schools. Other shootings spurred discussions about new laws to charge young attackers as adults.
In the early 1990s, people cited boot camps as the way to cure violent youth. These camps were popular because they were perceived as a way to provide discipline and punishment, as well as treatment through counseling, Spencer says.
"Not much has changed in how we understand and respond to these forms of violence," he says. "These kinds of labels are pushing us away from fixing the problem, but they persist because of the entertainment value the labels have."
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