PLAYGROUNDS AS KILLING FIELDS America's young ending disputes, lives of potential with violence


After a year of bullying by a classmate, a high school freshman in rural Pennsylvania shot him in the head last May during biology class.

On the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone two weeks later, police say, a 10-year-old boy ended an argument by driving a steak knife into the chest of his 12-year-old friend.

This month in a central Florida subdivision, a 14-year-old was accused of shooting and killing his younger step-sister.

Snapshots of human tragedy, these stories of youth homicide flash across the front pages of newspapers and television screens every week in America. Behind the words and images lie an increasing number of lost lives and potential.

They point to a change in human relations that concerns authorities: young people are killing more often in America, and often they are killing each other.

Between 1965 and 1990, the murder arrest rate for juveniles age 10 to 17 grew by 332 percent, according to a recent FBI study. And, while that part of the youth population declined by more than 2 million, the number of arrests mushroomed from 822 to 3,284.

There has been a "tremendous change in attitude," says James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "It reflects a desensitization to violence."

Researchers lay blame for the increase on the usual suspects of social science: dysfunctional families, substance abuse, television violence, child abuse and poverty. The declining influence of churches and schools have left children with fewer guidelines.

But the most obvious and fatal factor, they say, is guns.

More and more often they are found in the hands, pants pockets and even purses of kids. Instead of bare knuckles, young people these days are more likely than ever to solve conflicts with bullets.

Turning to guns

Between 1950 and 1990 the number of guns in the United States rose from 54 million to 201 million, according to estimates by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Twenty years ago, "what might have been a bloody nose or a stabbing, today is a homicide," says Charles Ewing, a forensic psychologist and author of two books on juvenile murder.

And there are other changes.

As drug-related violence took off in the 1980s, the news media and general public came to view youth homicide as largely a black, urban problem. Recent evidence, however, shows that it is becoming a broader societal issue.

Kids in white communities are killing more and more often.

The murder arrest rate among whites age 10 to 17 grew by 425 percent between 1965 and 1990, according to the FBI study. That is 93 percent more than the national rate during the same period.

That startling increase in percentage is based on relatively small numbers, researchers note. In 1965, 306 white juveniles age 10 to 17 were charged with murder, according to the FBI. By 1990, the number had risen to 1,283.

As violence has moved to the suburbs and rural areas so has the media's eye, researchers say. Murder in these places still remains fairly unusual.

And lucrative. The day the boy in rural Pennsylvania shot and killed his classmate last May, two movie studios called his mother requesting the film rights. She sold them to pay for his defense.

"There was a racial spin," said Philadelphia sociology professor Charles Gallagher, describing news media coverage of the slaying. "This made front-page news because it was white, suburban."

Killing is spreading

From small towns to working and middle-class bedroom communities, young people seem to be killing in places they never used to before. Rural Red Hill, Pa.; the swampland of Charles City County, Va.; the seaside suburb of Dartmouth, Mass.

For many communities, the killings mark a collective loss of innocence and realization that no place in America is quite safe anymore. It could have happened anywhere, residents often say.

And that is the point.

Communities struggle for answers, but there has been little research in this realm of juvenile homicide. Explanations are often impressionistic and anecdotal.

Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, has studied more than 60 white juvenile killers over the past decade. Common characteristics have included poor problem-solving skills, lack of male role models and unemployment.

Cases where ordinary conflict explodes into murder have become more common, he says. The first case he studied involved a 16-year-old boy who killed a 14-year-old girl because she called him "Pizza face."

'All classes represented'

The majority of the killers he has studied come from working-class, broken homes. Although, Mr. Cornell adds, "you certainly find all classes represented."

Mr. Fox, of Northeastern University, lays part of the blame on declining institutions.

Budget problems have forced suburban and city governments to cut afternoon programs and sports. As more women have either opted or been forced to work outside the home, their supervisory role in neighborhoods has diminished.

"More kids after school are idle," Mr. Fox says, "hanging out with friends or going home and watching Hard Copy (the tabloid TV show) reenact violent crime because Mom is working."

"Government, private industry and men have not stepped up to take up the slack of women entering the work force," he says. "I think we're just ignoring our kids."

TV as babysitter

In the absence of parents, television has become the nation's favorite babysitter. Many think its violent content and global reach have contributed heavily to young people's changing attitudes on violence.

Victor Streib, a law professor and attorney at Cleveland State University, has interviewed at least ten white youths on death row. Their concepts of violence come from television's glorified and antiseptic portrayals, he says. After they killed, many were surprised by the goriness of the murder scenes.

To them, "it just doesn't seem real," he says. "It's this kind of fantasy, cartoon movie. Shoot 'em, then you cut to a commercial, don't you?"

Last month, under increasing public pressure, America's four broadcast networks agreed to provide warnings to parents just before airing particularly violent shows. The new system, however, is discretionary and won't apply to children's programs or cable networks like MTV and HBO.

Amid the onslaught, network executives point out that there is no conclusive evidence that video violence makes kids punch, stab or kill. When parents talk of installing devices to block out violent shows, television's brass sometimes points the finger back.

Said Fox Chairwoman Lucille S. Salhany at a press conference last week: "Have we so abrogated our responsibility as parents to talk to our children about things like violence on TV that we have to ask technology to stand in for us?"

Candidate for murder

Take many of these influences, changes and societal pressures, dump them on the shoulders of the wrong kid and you may have a candidate for murder, researchers say. That, it appears, is what happened to Jason Smith.

Jason, 15, grew up in Red Hill, a rural community of 1,800, forty miles north of Philadelphia. Up until 75 years ago, Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of German, was the dominant language in the redbrick Victorian homes that line the town's main street. Most of the residents were descendants of socially conservative, deeply religious people.

In the past 20 years, a new group has moved in. Fleeing crime in Philadelphia and its suburbs, many have come to work at factories built on cheap farmland. Some say they have brought tougher attitudes with them.

"When we were kids, you could walk anywhere and feel pretty safe," said Rosemary Brinckman, 36, who grew up in the area. "Now you never know what's going to come around the corner."

As Red Hill and society changed, so did Jason Smith's life.

His parents split up in 1990. They fought over Jason, mapping out his custody to the day. A year ago, his mother's boyfriend moved into their townhouse with his collection of firearms, including rifles, shotguns and pistols.

Unhappy with his parents' relationship, Jason was also frustrated at school. At 5 feet 4 inches and 125 pounds, he had become a target for bullies. The one who bothered him most, he told police, was a 6-foot, 5-inch classmate named Michael Swann.

Michael and Jason had little in common.

Jason was a quiet boy who suffered from diabetes. He spent much of his time playing Sega video games at home with his friends. Michael, who had moved in from Lansdale, a far suburb of Philadelphia, was loud, aggressive and loved rap music, people said.

After the shooting, Jason explained to police what drove him to kill. This is his story:

Jason's story

"He pushed me and kicked me and makes me look like an ass," Jason said of Michael. "I'd say, 'knock it off.' He would just walk away and laugh or just keep doing it."

Jason told neither his mother nor school officials about the problem. He didn't think administrators would take him seriously. At most, he said, Michael would have had to serve an in-school suspension.

Four days before the shooting, Jason finally lost his patience when Michael kicked his desk out from underneath him. The following Monday, he forced open a gun cabinet at home and picked out a Ruger 9mm automatic. After his mother left for work at an insurance company, he test-fired a shell into his bedroom wall.

I wanted "to make sure it would hit him," he told police.

Asked why he didn't use a rifle, Jason answered succinctly: "Not concealable."

He took a long shower and arrived late for biology class. Michael continued to tease him, calling him "Smitty woman," a play on his nickname and the Roy Orbison tune, "Pretty Woman."

After about 25 minutes, Jason pulled the pistol from his book bag, got up out of his chair and stood about three and a half feet in front of Michael.

"You want to make fun of me?" he reportedly said before firing. "Make fun of me now."

Afterward, he walked out of school, sat down by a tree and waited for police to arrive. Jason now sits in a Philadelphia psychiatric hospital awaiting trial for murder. At the end of this month, he will celebrate his sixteenth birthday.

More kids will kill

Over the next dozen years, researchers expect that more and more kids of all races will kill. Even if the rate remains the same -- and most think it will continue to rise -- the problem will get worse.

As the baby boomers' children grow older, the youth population most prone to kill -- ages 15 to 19 -- will increase by more than 20 percent, according to population estimates.

Echoing other researchers, Mr. Fox of Northeastern University says: "It's guaranteed that we will have more violence than we have now."

Amid this gloomy forecast is one silver lining. Despite rises in juvenile homicide, kids still commit a disproportionately low percentage of murders and violent crime.

In Baltimore, 44 juveniles were arrested for murder in 1990, accounting for only 13 percent of the total murder arrests that year, according to David Altschuler, a research scientist at the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Consider the total number of juvenile arrests in Baltimore for 1990 -- 10,700 -- and murder becomes a tiny fraction.

"By and large, the crimes for which juveniles are arrested are not even violent," said Mr. Altschuler. "Murder is a very, very small piece of the action."

But for a town like Red Hill, a single killing feels like an earthquake. People are jolted out of their daily routines and forced to consider the foundation on which their community is built.

If children are a barometer of social change, other towns and suburbs can learn a lot from Jason Smith, say researchers familiar with the case. His tale is a cautionary one about basic changes spreading throughout society.

"There are certain fundamental beliefs that are being abandoned," says Mr. Ewing, the forensic psychologist. "You don't kill people. No matter what they do to you, you don't kill them."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad