Exurban living may be accessory in teen violence


THE 15-year-old who is accused of shooting four people to death and wounding 25 others in Springfield, Ore., last week is only the latest teen-age gunman to hail from a semirural setting. We should stop noting that these young people have become vicious killers despite being raised in the idyllic-looking countryside. Instead, we should consider the possibility that exurban isolation has become a contributing factor to their sort of teen-age mayhem. That means turning the U.S. model of what constitutes a nurturing environment for young people on its head.

The family of Kip Kinkel lived in a new bedroom community outside Eugene, a college town. People in Springfield can look up at the lovely Cascade Mountains in one direction and the Coast Range in the other. Each of the houses in the Kinkels' area sits on its own 2 to 5 acres. Pictures of the house where Kip allegedly shot both parents to death show a lifestyle that embodies the Northwest ideal. The wood-shingled house is carefully set above the McKenzie River and among the pines. Wood decks make a natural transition from house to forest. The woodsy development is called Shangri La. What could go wrong in a place like that? Apparently, plenty.

Developing savages

Pine trees need water, good soil and light to thrive. But human beings need more. They require interaction with other people. Youngsters, especially, must socialize. But that becomes hard to do in exurbia, where housing patterns cut people off from each other. A good number of children living in such isolated areas have become savages, and they are not noble savages.

The Kinkels' development was new, so there were no old residents to keep children company. Both of Kip's parents worked outside the home as did most of the adult neighbors. The multiacre residences do not much resemble what most of us would call a community. They're more a collection of compounds. There are no sidewalks, and in any case, there is no place to walk. Shopping is done in strip malls off of main roads. The kids can't walk to school and have no place to hang out. There's no public transportation so the young are trapped. The only alternative to incarceration in the family house is a car. Young adolescents can't drive.

A real community has neighbors, store owners and public places to meet. Children in real neighborhoods can walk to a burger shop or soda fountain or library. The day is full of familiar faces. A bus driver may not become a teen-ager's best friend, but he or she will give regular passengers a nod of recognition. The nod says "you exist."

Adolescents are far more interested in getting together with fellow young people than enjoying the bracing mountain air. A teen-ager deprived of validation by others may go berserk. (A dog abandoned for long periods will tear up a house. Just look at how small amounts of attention pacify a dog.) Psychologists view teen-age rampages as desperate attempts to gain attention. Mass killings certainly make others take notice.

Acquaintances have described the Kinkel parents as wonderful people and popular schoolteachers. Where was their son in all this? News accounts say that on the day before his rampage, Kip was arrested at school for carrying a stolen firearm. He was known to brag about torturing animals. As police hauled him off, Kip threatened to retaliate against other students. Given the rash of schoolyard massacres, one is amazed that the police would release the boy, even to his parents. And one can only be astounded that the parents would then let such a troubled child out of their sight.

Social costs vs. taxes

It is said that families move from Eugene to Springfield in search of lower taxes and bigger houses. They also seek to "escape" the bustle of the bigger town. Now this may go against the grain of our national myths, but a lot of families would be better off living in smaller houses in settlements like Eugene. Community life has become even more important these days, when parents are at work. Higher taxes are a small price to pay for a healthier social environment.

So, it is not a coincidence that the great majority of schoolhouse shootings, which have ended 13 lives and wounded 40 others in only eight months, have taken place in lonely exurbia. Rhododendrons need little more than water and space to grow healthy. Teen-agers need organized ties to other people. Ignored, they may do horrible things. Even a dog, left alone, goes crazy.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist.

Pub Date: 5/28/98

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