Columbia recently experienced an attack of vandalism centering around the Phelps Luck Elementary School. The school, as well as a number of cars in the neighborhood surrounding it, were the targets of a spray-paint assault.

The vehicles and the school building were sprayed with a variety of stripes, profanity and general graffiti. One vehicle even had scratches on a door, presumably made by the vandals. This all occurred Sept. 19, the night that started the Jewish New Year, a holiday that closed schools for Howard County students.

A resident was quoted on a television news report as saying that this sort of thing is not uncommon when there is a single day off for students.

They stay out late the night before and just sort of "run wild."

Whenever a community anywhere experiences vandalism, the first question asked may be "who?" but the next and far more difficult question is "why?"

Most vandals are youngsters, usually in their teens. However, each year the age seems to drop lower, with younger and younger children becoming involved in these acts. It's said that acts of vandalism are performed out of feelings of helplessness, frustration, having no control over one's life and surroundings, and a need to strike out at adults -- those who are "in charge," if you will.

It's easy to understand these types of feelings in a poor, economically depressed neighborhood, where youngsters feel that they have no chance, short of a miracle, of succeeding in life, no matter what they do. These kids no doubt feel that the cards are stacked against them.

But can these same feelings exist in middle-class or even affluent suburbs? How can this be, when young people have everything they need, and an overwhelming number of planned, structured activities to choose from in their after-school hours? Sure they can. Might not these kids feel just as helpless, just as suffocated, just as invisible as their poorer counterparts?

They may feel ignored by busy parents who both work hard with long hours to maintain a certain lifestyle. These parents may be so tired at the end of the day that they don't have time to listen to their children's daily concerns. So to get the youngsters off their backs they may agree to any request the children may make -- give them money, let them go somewhere with friends -- anything to get them out of the house. Or they might sign them up for an an array of structured recreational activities to "improve" them, whether the children necessarily like it or not.

These youngsters may feel frustrated by pressure from their parents to "succeed" (according to the parents' definition of success), countered by equally strong pressure from peers to "be cool," and conform with whatever the gang is doing.

Or there may be family strife, with constant turmoil in the house during all times of the day and night. There may be divorce procedures going on, a single parent struggling to make ends meet, and that same parent trying to find a new relationship -- a relationship that the children may not accept, because no one can take the place of Mom or Dad.

There's a lot going on to mess with the minds of kids in today's society. It's not "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave It To Beaver" anymore -- if it ever was.

This is not just a Howard County problem. This sort of thing happens everywhere.

If any of you get a chance to see the little-known movie, "Over the Edge," a critically acclaimed film made in 1979, you'll see an example of what can happen if things go too far and kids' frustrations explode into uncontrolled rage. The movie, said to be a low-budget film, with Matt Dillon as the only recognizable star, is fact-based. It shows up from time to time on the Arts and Entertainment Network on the local basic cable service.

The basic premise of the film centers around a planned community, New Granada, somewhere in the western part of the country, I believe. The town seems to have everything, except something to do for the large number of youngsters there. The parents seem to be too interested in making money and attracting businesses to the town to care what their children think and want.

At one point, the sign for a planned bowling alley and movie theater is being taken down, and one for an industrial park is being substituted, because "those (recreational) types of activities don't bring in enough money." The kids have only a "rec" center in an old Quonset hut, with a limited number of games and activities. The youngsters' major activities are mostly drug use, partying, burglary and vandalism.

To summarize, relations deteriorate between the kids and the police and adults, until the breaking point occurs, with the youth of the town running amok, destroying cars and severely damaging their high school -- a worst-case scenario of frustration begetting violence.

This sort of situation, or one similar in nature, actually occurred somewhere. So it is not out of the realm of reality. Children's frustrations and feelings of helplessness pose a dilemma for well-meaning parents and school officials. Vandalism in the schools is a serious problem. I remember when I was teaching that items in the restrooms were being constantly repaired, replaced and repainted. Graffiti on desks and walls was also present. These acts are symptoms of a deeper problem.

No one can say there's nothing for kids to do in our county. But how many of the available recreational activities involve signing up for extremely well-planned, regularly scheduled activities that lock the kids into an "if-it's-soccer-it must be Tuesday" routine that, if overdone, can put them on treadmills similar to the ones their overwrought parents are running on?

What's enough structure, direction and encouragement for young people?

When does enough become too much? We need to be listening, paying attention, and finding out what is going on with our children. Just the act of listening and giving your attention may be enough to show that you care who they are and what they are doing.

This may be enough to keep your child from going over the edge. The vandalism that occurred on such a large scale recently is a warning sign.

Shouldn't we heed it?

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