School violence's 'contagion effect' Quest for explanation of rise in crime begins


For many years, psychiatrists have known that teen suicides sometimes occur in local clusters, as news that one child has killed himself reaches other desperate adolescents with the mirage of a way out.

Now, as Americans grapple with yet another case of a teen-age boy turning a small-arms arsenal on his schoolmates, some fear that spectacular school violence might be spreading from state to state through the media like some fatal virus.

"How does a 15-year-old reach the point where he can do something like this?" asked John J. Gibbons, director of the University of Maryland's post-traumatic stress syndrome clinic for children and adolescents. "Troubled kids see and hear something like this and see it as a solution. Historically, a cluster of suicides was in one community. Now, with the media coverage, everyone watches these shootings on TV, even if they happen all the way across the country."

"There's a contagion effect," agreed David G. Fassler, a Vermont psychiatrist and author on childhood depression. "The media are a powerful tool."

The ambulances had not yet carried the dead and wounded from a Springfield, Ore., high school cafeteria Thursday when the news flashed across the country and the collective quest for an explanation began.

As was the case with heavily publicized school shootings in small-town America since October -- in places including Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Edinboro, Pa. -- there was no shortage of opinions on what might have driven Kip Kinkel allegedly to kill his parents before gunning down classmates.

It's the guns, stupid, 192 million of them in private hands, said gun-control advocates. It's not guns, said the National Rifle Association, whose "Eddie Eagle" program teaches even toddlers about firearms: It's lax enforcement of laws on the books. What was Kinkel doing free, NRA officials asked, the day after his arrest on a weapons charge?

'Social toxicity' blamed

Psychiatrists spoke of the "stunted moral development" of children exposed to violence in the home and on video screens. Mental health advocates said managed care has made it harder to get disturbed youths into psychiatric treatment.

Sociologists speculated about overworked parents and schools with too few counselors. Media critics said sensational coverage of violent crime has migrated from local television to national networks.

James Garbarino, director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University, said many such factors have combined to produce "social toxicity," an accumulation of stresses vulnerable teen-agers cannot handle. Like many social scientists, he borrows the language of public health.

"Epidemics first take root in the most vulnerable part of the population," said Garbarino, who has studied children in killing zones from Cambodia to the streets of Chicago. "This socially toxic environment is most intense in poor city neighborhoods, but now it's spreading across the country."

Garbarino blames youth violence on familiar toxins: violent imagery in entertainment, even for the youngest children; a sharp decline in time parents spend with children, and a huge supply of semiautomatic guns.

Talking about television with a group of suburban Chicago eight-year-olds, Garbarino was struck that they spoke of the gentle "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" as "what they used to watch." What they watch now, they told him, is "Beavis and Butthead."

The average child may pass unscathed through the ocean of coarse, retributive behavior in popular culture. But for psychologically vulnerable children -- for those who are abused or clinically depressed, whom no adult helps to sort fantasy from reality -- the culture can be dangerously disorienting, he said.

Children can become stuck in the "vendetta stage" of moral development, with no sense of empathy or compassion, only a driving need to avenge whatever injustice they feel they have suffered.

"Then, on top of everything else, you add guns," Garbarino says. "And we see what happens."

But some experts warn that what is happening is not yet statistically established, and the rash of shootings does not necessarily mean a reversal of a recent decline in the youth homicide rate.

The rate of homicides committed by people under 18 began climbing in the mid-1980s before peaking in 1994 and declining slightly in 1995 and 1996, according to Eric Lotke, an attorney who has studied youth homicide for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a corrections reform group outside Washington.

Gun murders were responsible for the entire increase, which coincided with the crack cocaine explosion in major cities. Lotke found that four cities -- Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Detroit -- accounted for 30 percent of juvenile homicide arrests in 1994, though they were home to only 5 percent of the juvenile population.

Deadly trend

But the National School Safety Center in California, which has tracked school violence since 1992, has found a sharp increase in school shootings with multiple victims, counting 16 such incidents in media reports since last year after finding only a handful between 1992 and 1996.

"It's a real trend. There's no doubt about it," said Ronald Stephens, the center's executive director. It shows, he said, that "violence is no respecter of geography, race or economics. All the recent cases have involved young, white, suburban or rural males."

Stephens called the intense media coverage of school shootings "a necessary wake-up call for communities" to work harder on violence prevention. But not everyone believes journalists are mere witnesses.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington has followed network news for a decade and detected a notable increase in coverage devoted to violent crime, said Rich Noyes, the center's director of political studies.

In 1988, crime did not rank in the top 10 network news topics, he said. From 1989 through 1992, crime moved into the middle rank. But since 1993, crime has been the No. 1 topic on national TV news every year except 1996, when election coverage barely edged crime out.

"This leads to the impression that we're becoming a more violent country, when violent crime is really going down," Noyes said. The Oregon shootings, "are devastating to the community, but they're really a local story."

Conscious of such concerns, the Chicago Sun-Times yesterday ran a notice saying it was keeping the Oregon story off the front page to avoid inspiring copycat violence or scaring young readers.

"Following the series of school shootings nationwide, we see a danger that prominent reports of each successive incident could be contributing to the phenomenon," the newspaper said.

The series of shootings is causing widespread schoolyard jitters. After a Columbus, Ohio, high school student told classmates two weeks ago he planned "something big" for May 21, the school asked police to investigate. Rumors flew about a bomb or a "hit list" of students, and 130 of 540 students stayed home Thursday.

Students and teachers were relieved to discover what the big event was -- the boy's 16th birthday.

Pub Date: 5/23/98

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