Our Violent Kids

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Beating. Rape. Murder. Screams in the night. Bricks in the face. Sirens drowning out the crying. These are the images of violent crime -- the crime generally associated with the most depraved individuals. No one is shocked any longer to hear of atrocities committed by mobsters, drug pushers or psychopaths. But the boy next door? That harmless-looking kid in biology class? The captain of the football team?

It is hard to believe, and harder still to comprehend, but it is true. Some atrocious crimes in America are being committed by those who should be the most innocent -- the young. Recent weeks have brought news of two particularly brutal acts: the gang rape and near murder of a jogger in Manhattan's Central Park by a group of youths 14 to 16, and the alleged sexual assault on a mentally impaired girl by high school students in affluent Glen Ridge, N.J. These crimes have awakened the country to the beast that has broken loose in some of America's young people.

The Central Park and Glen Ridge attacks are only the most highly publicized of the cases occurring across the U.S. More and more teenagers, acting individually or in gangs, are running amuck. In the Central Park incident, young toughs said they were "wilding," which apparently means marauding with no purpose in mind but to create havoc and hurt people. In Philadelphia packs of youths chant "Beat, beat, beat" as they roam the streets looking for victims.

To be sure, teenagers have never been angels. Adolescence is often a troubled time of rebellion and rage. From West Side Story to Rebel Without a Cause, the violence of youth has been chronicled on stage and screen. But juvenile crime appears to be more widespread and vicious than ever before. "Burglars used to rob a house and then run away. Now they urinate or defecate in the home or burn it up before leaving," says Shawn Johnston, a forensic psychologist in Sacramento. "Thieves mugged a person and ran off. Now they beat their victims." Or rape or murder them.

Statistics show an upsurge in the most violent types of crimes by teens. In part, this trend may result from better reporting, but some experts believe it reflects a true increase in violence. According to the FBI, between 1983 and 1987 arrests of those under 18 for murder jumped 22.2%, for aggravated assault 18.6% and for rape 14.6%. Those figures may not seem dramatic, but they should be seen in the context of a 2% decline in the total number of teenagers in the U.S. since 1983.

Many of the tales behind the numbers are horrifying. In Springfield, Mass., last April, a 13-year-old girl was walking through a park with a girlfriend when she was allegedly attacked by five boys no older than 16. They fondled her breasts and appeared to be preparing to rape her when her screams brought help. Last September a 15-year-old Houston boy raped and murdered a 66-year- old woman, then burglarized her home. In May a 15-year-old Detroit boy was charged with killing another teenager with a sawed-off shotgun, apparently in a dispute over a stolen bicycle. Ten months ago, a 16-year-old boy drove 150 miles from his home in Princeton, Ky., and shot to death a woman he did not know. The boy, who came to be known as "Little Rambo" to his schoolmates, told police that he "just wanted to get away and kill somebody."

Adolescents have always been violence prone, but there are horrendous crimes * being committed by even younger children. In Detroit last April, an eleven- year-old boy was charged with joining a 15-year-old in the rape of a two- year-old girl. The two allegedly left their victim in a garbage Dumpster. When he was only ten, a boy in San Antonio began sexually abusing three of his four younger sisters and continued until he was caught at 16.

The teen crime wave flows across all races, classes and life-styles. The youths who went on the Central Park rampage were blacks and Hispanics from Harlem, but they were not desperately poor. Three of the five suspects charged in the Glen Ridge sexual assault were idolized football stars, and two of them were co-captains of their high school team. Eight other Glen Ridge High School students, including the son of a local police lieutenant, allegedly stood by and watched the assault. In Denver a 16-year-old boy charged with first-degree murder in a stabbing death was a high school honors student.

The offenders are overwhelmingly male, but girls too are capable of vicious crimes. In Escondido, Calif., a 16-year-old girl and three teenage boys went on an arson spree last March. The group set four fires at three schools, causing damage that will cost more than $1 million to repair. A 16-year-old girl from Cape Cod, Mass., who had been drinking stabbed her male cousin, severely injuring him.

What is chilling about many of the young criminals is that they show no remorse or conscience, at least initially. Youths brag about their exploits and shrug off victims' pain. A Chicago case in which four teenagers raped and killed a medical student was solved because of good police work and what Pat O'Brien, Cook County deputy state's attorney, describes as "the defendants' inability to keep their mouths shut" about the crime. "It was a badge," he explains. "It was something they talked about as if it gave them status within that group of guys." Youngsters offhandedly refer to innocent passersby caught in the line of gunfire between two gangs as "mushrooms." "That is callous," observes Edward Loughran, commissioner of the Massachusetts department of youth services. "Alienated is too weak a word to describe these kids."

How could this be happening? The experts offer a raft of reasons, everything from physiological and psychological abnormalities to family and cultural decay. By themselves, none of the explanations are wholly satisfactory. But each of these factors may contribute to at least some of the violence. Generalizations are difficult because every case is unique. Each young criminal has his own genes, his own family background and his own response to the many forces in modern culture that encourage indiscriminate sex and violence.

A frequently advanced -- and hotly disputed -- theory is that aggression is a biologically rooted impulse of young males. Some experts suggest that there may be a genetic component to hostile behavior; others attempt to tie it to levels of different chemicals that circulate through the body and brain. One of them is testosterone. Production of this male sex hormone rises dramatically during puberty, a period usually marked by intense sexual desire and strong aggressive tendencies. Some studies indicate that particularly rough athletes or violent prisoners have higher than normal testosterone levels.

Violent youths frequently have neurological problems and learning disorders, many of which result from brain injuries inflicted in beatings by parents and others. Some suffer from paranoia and hallucinations, and others experience seizures. Some of the most violent children tend to have grossly abnormal electroencephalograms.

But it is too easy to say that biology is destiny and that all violent youths are simply captives of their physiology or "raging hormones." Society has generally been able to control and channel aggressive impulses through its basic institutions -- home, schools and church. But these moral pillars are crumbling.

Too many children are growing up in families headed by one overburdened parent, usually the mother. Even when two parents are present, both often have demanding jobs and are absorbed in their own concerns. Sometimes the parents are strung out on alcohol or drugs. The result is that children do not get the nurturing, guidance or supervision necessary to instill a set of values and a proper code of behavior.

Children normally learn to trust and develop attachments to people within the first two years of life. By then they have also acquired a sense of compassion and empathy for others. And they have begun to be taught the difference between right and wrong and that hurtful actions have consequences. Many youngsters, though, fail to acquire those early curbs on conduct. Later on, when children misbehave, indulgent parents make excuses and forgo punishments. Young boys who grow up with absent or uninvolved fathers suffer doubly in that they often fail to develop a healthy sense of masculinity.

The neglect is frequently compounded by outright abuse. Says Dorothy Otnow Lewis, professor of psychiatry at New York University: "Kids are being raised by more and more disturbed parents. And what this lack of parenting breeds is misshapen personalities." Parents punch each other verbally and physically -- and frequently do the same with their children. In fact, the large majority of violent kids have been physically, and often sexually, abused by parents, relatives or others. One mother, reports Lewis, broke her son's legs with a broom; a father threw his child down a set of stairs.

As a consequence of indifference and abuse, children are left emotional cripples, self-centered, angry and alienated. And fated to repeat the chilling lessons they have learned. "These children are dead inside," says psychologist Johnston. "For them to feel alive and important, they engage in terrible types of sadistic activity."

Their innocent victims are usually surrogate targets; the parents may be the ones they really hate. A 17-year-old boy who is now in a treatment program in San Bernardino, Calif., began sexually molesting younger members of his family when he was about twelve. He himself had been molested at the age of six, first by his father and then by a twelve-year-old friend. Says the boy: "My father used to beat my mom all the time. That makes me kind of angry. He was always out partying, getting high. My fantasy is making him suffer. First I'd shoot him in the kneecaps and let him suffer for about an hour, screaming. Then I'd shoot him in the nuts and let him suffer some more, and then I'd put a bullet through his head."

Signals of violence surface early but frequently go ignored or denied. Serial killer Ted Bundy's family insisted for years that he had a normal childhood, points out psychiatrist Lewis. It was only recently revealed that "by the time he was three, he was putting knives in his aunt's bed." The youngster who taunts siblings, bullies schoolmates, tortures pets or peeks in windows is sending up warning flares.

Children abandoned physically or emotionally by their parents look elsewhere for companionship, acceptance and values. Odell Edwards, a 20-year-old serving time in a Ventura, Calif., juvenile facility for attempted murder and other offenses, recalls that by the age of 14 he was spending most of his time away from home and hanging out with a group of friends that he called his "homeboys." Says Edwards: "I never really had anyone to talk to. My father was gone. I had no one to turn to when I was in trouble, except my homeboys. They became my family."

Members of a group learn about sex from one another, experiment with drugs together and look to their friends for a sense of belonging and approval. Notes Alan Morris, chief of the adolescent unit of the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute in Chicago: "Some kids, especially younger adolescents, have an exquisite sensitivity to what their peers think. They won't go to school if their shoelaces are the wrong color."

But the group's influence is often treacherous. Explains young Edwards: "It's peer pressure and wanting to be accepted by your friends and trying to prove yourself in the best way you know how, which is being violent." Gangs allow even the most cowardly and impotent to feel brave and powerful. And they override inhibitions and diminish any feelings of guilt. Violence becomes contagious. Some youngsters revel in the mayhem; others, too weak to break away, become trapped and are swept along.

In many instances, the violence is fueled by easy access to guns, alcohol and drugs, particularly crack. Users often "fall into a sadomasochistic ritual after smoking together," says Terry Williams, a senior research scholar at the New School for Social Research. "They are angry, hallucinating, and get into violent fights." Crack can also leave users sexually aroused. When they do not find a willing partner, Williams asserts, they may be tempted to rape.

If teenagers often get their values from peers, then just what are those values? In American society today, the emphasis is less on caring for others than on getting money and instant gratification. Notes Arnold Goldstein, director of the Center for Research on Aggression at Syracuse University: "We are a nation whose role models, Presidents and leaders on Wall Street have set a tone in the country -- 'I'm going to get mine.' " If the big-shot investment banker can take what he wants, often by illegal means, then a teenager may think he should be able to grab the spoils in the only way he knows how. Declares Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles: "Our culture accentuates instinct instead of inhibiting it."

The entertainment media play a powerful role in the formation of values. Today's children, unlike those of earlier generations, are fed a steady diet of glorified violence. Television cartoons feature dehumanized, machinelike characters, such as the Transformers and Gobots, engaged in destructive acts. But viewers see no consequences. Victims never bleed and never suffer. Youngsters mimic the behavior with toys based on the shows. Later they graduate to TV programs and movies that depict people killing or degrading other people. By the age of 16, the typical child has witnessed an estimated 200,000 acts of violence, including 33,000 murders. Inevitably, contend many experts, some youngsters will imitate the brutality in real life. In a 22-year study, researchers tracked the development of 875 third-graders from a rural community in New York. Among the discoveries: those who watched the greatest amount of violent television at the age of eight were the most likely to show aggressive behavior at 19 and later. About one-quarter of the students were considered violent at 30 -- they had been convicted of a crime, had multiple traffic violations or were abusive to spouses.

Rock music has become a dominant -- and potentially destructive -- part of teenage culture. Lyrics, album covers and music videos, particularly in the rock genre called heavy metal, romanticize bondage, sexual assaults and murder. The song Girls L.G.B.N.A.F. by Ice-T contains the words "Girls, let's get butt naked and f." Or consider these lyrics from Motley Crue's Girls, Girls, Girls, an album that reached No. 2 on the Billboard chart and has sold more than 2 million copies:

The blade of my knife

Faced away from your heart

Those last few nights

It turned and sliced you apart . . .

Laid out cold

Now we're both alone

But killing you helped me keep you home.

Guns N' Roses put out an album called Appetite for Destruction, which has sold more than 6 million copies. The jacket cover, featuring a robot looming over a woman in torn clothing, was so repellent that some record stores refused to carry the album. Says Tipper Gore, co-founder of the Parents' Music Resource Center and a longtime critic of rock lyrics: "Music companies are cultural strip miners, profiting from the sex and violence and ignoring the scars."

Even today's comic books are not immune from the violent trend. While parents may fondly remember the dating shenanigans of Archie and Veronica or the wholesome exploits of superheroes, their children are now being offered a titillating blend of sadism and sex. A stripper was crucified in one issue of Green Arrow. Superman, in a story called Bloodsport, battled a deranged Viet Nam veteran who was shooting people at random on the streets of Metropolis with a gun in each hand.

Among the most offensive purveyors of brutality to women are slasher films. The movies that inaugurated the trend, including Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, are now tame compared with such opuses as I Spit on Your Grave or Splatter University. The main features: graphic and erotic scenes of female mutilation, rape or murder. Slasher films are widely shown on cable TV, and video shops do a booming business in rentals, especially among eleven-to-15-year-olds. Youngsters watch three or four at a clip at all-night "gross-out" parties. In some fraternity houses on college campuses, slasher movies play continually in lounges, along with pornographic films.

Sexually explicit movies may lead some young men to reaffirm the all-too- common male attitude that when a woman says no she really means yes. Many experts believe that such films may be a contributing factor in date rape, one of the most common adolescent sexual crimes. "Teenagers are only doing what they are told to do," says sociologist Gail Dines-Levy of Boston's Wheelock College. "They are being conformists, not deviants."

In some cases, poverty can help spur violent crime. Many ghetto residents have little sense of hope or opportunity, and feel they have little stake in preserving society. Boys often have trouble forging a masculine identity without one of the primary accompaniments -- a job. Teen unemployment is endemic among poor youth, running more than 40% in many communities. Meanwhile, welfare and social programs suffered drastic cutbacks during the Reagan era. Says Chicago psychiatrist Carl Bell: "Violence is the weapon of the powerless." Agrees Professor Leah Blumberg Lapidus of Columbia Teachers College in Manhattan: "It relieves boredom and makes a statement, like graffiti, that says, 'Notice me.' "

But a life of privilege can also be corrupting. Children who have everything given to them may come to believe that they are entitled to anything, that they are above their fellow human beings and above the law. And yet their busy, overachieving parents may not be giving pampered teens what they need most: attention and supervision. "Neglect is abuse," says Randa Dembroff, an official of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. "A workaholic parent is just as abusive as one who physically abuses his children."

Can anything be done about violent youngsters? Many Americans are calling for stronger laws and punishments. They argue that juveniles should be prosecuted as adults and that prison sentences should be longer. "These kids are getting away with murder," declares Robert Contreras, a police detective in Los Angeles. "They are not afraid, have no respect for anything and joke that in jail they'll at least get three square meals a day." Syracuse's Goldstein surveyed 250 juvenile delinquents for their solutions to violence and found that they too favored harsher sentences. Many thought that jail was too "cushy."

Others have offered an even more radical idea: locking up parents. California is trying to do just that. Under an eight-month-old statute, parents can be held responsible for the criminal activity of their offspring. In April, Los Angeles police arrested a woman whose 15-year-old son has been charged with participating in the rape of a twelve-year-old girl by a dozen members of a street gang. If she is convicted of violating the parental- responsibility law, she faces a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Such solutions offer only illusory security. Parents contend that they cannot control their children. And most youngsters are eventually released from jail. Many return more hardened than before. "You need to break delinquents from the group where antisocial behavior is reinforced," explains psychologist Michael Nelson of Xavier University in Cincinnati. "But we're caught in a catch-22 dilemma. We place delinquents in reform schools, where they have more access to individuals who are poor role models."

An unpopular but more sensible approach, say experts, is to offer rehabilitative treatment. Various communities across the U.S. are trying such programs -- with considerable success. The programs call for individual and group therapy for the offender and sometimes for his family as well. The strategy is to get violent youngsters to recognize the inappropriateness of their actions and to accept responsibility for them. That is a difficult task, particularly with sexual offenders, who are often imitating what was done to them.

In some programs, youngsters discuss or write up their own cases in an effort to identify the behavior patterns or situations that are liable to trigger hostile actions. For example, sexual offenders are advised to avoid baby-sitting. In the program operated by the Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts, members concentrate on overcoming aggressive thinking patterns -- for instance, assuming that they are the butt of the joke whenever people are laughing.

The treatment centers also try to elicit a sense of empathy. At Giddings, a maximum-security facility for juveniles in Texas, murderers keep a daily journal of their feelings and act out their crime, taking the roles of both their victim and surviving family members. Sexual offenders meet with groups of victims every few months. At its prisons and work camps, the California Youth Authority runs voluntary classes in which inmates study property crimes, domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, homicide and victims' rights. Some offenders do eventually express remorse. Says one Giddings boy, a middle- class 15-year-old from Austin who raped his eight-year-old neighbor: "I realize how society really looks at rape. Sometimes at night I sit up crying. I look back and say that could never have been me."

Such programs are clearly valuable, but the treatment is costly. Therapists say the optimum time needed for counseling sex offenders ranges from twelve to 18 months. (It can take about six months just to break through the denial phase.) Follow-up and outpatient therapy are also necessary. As a result, not enough youths get treatment.

No matter how effective the programs are, they are indisputably too late. Violence-prone youths need to be identified and helped before they explode in rage. Reporting of physical and sexual abuse in particular should be encouraged. The earlier the intervention, the greater the chance of success. All youngsters could also benefit from improved sex-education programs that explore the emotional as well as the mechanical aspects of sex. Some schools have begun offering special courses in preventing violence. A ten-session curriculum, designed by Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, the Massachusetts commissioner of public health, is being used in several high schools in Boston, Detroit and Denver. "We tell them anger is potentially constructive but they need to learn how to handle it," explains Prothrow-Stith. Students examine how fights begin and analyze videotapes of arguments.

Yet the lessons learned at school can easily be undermined by today's popular culture. The messages that blare from stereos, TVs and movie screens amount to a second education for the young. And much more money goes into the development of this after-school curriculum than goes into education. Rock * stars earn millions, but a high-school teacher is lucky to get $30,000 a year.

A growing band of activists is lobbying TV, movie and record producers to reduce the level of sex and violence in entertainment. Terry Rakolta of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the mother of four children, has started a group called Americans for Responsible Television. She has suggested that networks devote the first two hours of evening programming to family shows and has also asked major advertisers to avoid sponsoring programs that the group finds objectionable. One of Rakolta's first targets was Married . . . With Children, a racy prime-time sitcom. Parents' Music Resource Center, meanwhile, has successfully pressured the Recording Industry Association of America to create a rating system that alerts parents to sexually explicit lyrics. Warning labels are now printed on record jackets. The group also provides printed lyric sheets and encourages parents to complain to radio and TV stations about raunchy and violent programming.

Even the activists admit, however, that removing all sex and gore from the media would make no more than a small dent in the teen crime problem. Much more fundamental changes in society are needed. Government at all levels should step up the battles against drugs, poverty and racism. Far more money should be poured into education, day-care and recreational opportunities for the young. Youngsters need more of their parents' time, and they need to know that society cares about them.

Above all, parents should take a long, hard look in the mirror. The values of today's youth are merely magnified reflections of the values of their elders. Parents should remember the words of the father in Harry Chapin's song Cat's in the Cradle, when he comes to a sudden realization about his insensitive, uncaring son:

He'd grown up just like me

My boy was just like me.