Forum explores youth violence; Experts fault media, altered parental role


A town meeting to discuss youth violence drew a small crowd in Columbia last night, but U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin had a message for those who stayed away.

"Littleton [Colo.] is not that much different from Columbia, Catonsville, Elkridge or Pikesville," said the Maryland Democrat.

Cardin said youth violence -- from the 13-year-old Baltimore boy who impulsively shoots someone on the street to the calculating "school avengers" who have wreaked havoc in schools from Littleton to Paducah, Ky. -- is a major threat to society, and changes are needed.

Cardin -- bolstered by experts from Howard County Police Chief Wayne Livesay to Ginni Wolf, director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse -- told an audience of 23 people that 75,000 children were killed by guns in the 20 years before 1996. He said that children bring 135,000 guns each day into the nation's schools.

"We look for simple answers, but there aren't simple answers. I don't have answers on this one," said Cardin, whose congressional 3rd District includes parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

The town meeting, organized by Cardin, was held in the basement of Kahler Hall in Harper's Choice village, a newly designated crime HotSpot.

Society has changed drastically in the last few decades, said Cardin and others at the meeting, and exhausted parents struggling with work pressures, teachers who don't strictly enforce the rules, and kids who aren't held responsible for their behavior are causing myriad problems.

"Why are kids different? They try to get money to get what? Parents won't deny their kids anything," said Millicent Dangerfield, 63, of Pikesville.

Michael Romano, a River Hill High School senior had another point -- "Make the students part of the solution."

Cardin said he assembled a group of experts to provide some information and answers.

While youth who steal cars, deal drugs, kill and rob in big cities operate differently than angry boys who carefully plotted the murders of their classmates in rural and suburban schools, both groups need the same things, the experts said.

Firm attention from their parents, personal and loving discipline, and less exposure to media violence were some of the answers suggested by the experts -- Joyce Wright, chief of the Juvenile Court division of the Baltimore state's attorney's office; James McComb, executive director of Maryland's Juvenile Justice Coalition; and Dr. Susan Villani, a child psychiatrist and nationally recognized expert on the effect of media violence on children.

"I don't think the answer is throwing more kids into the adult justice system," said Wright, a city prosecutor for 17 years. The lure of illegal drugs, causing children to miss more school than they attend, is the big villain in the city, she said.

McComb pointed out another problem.

He said youths repeatedly caught doing things such as stealing cars are often released immediately to parents or grandparents who have no idea how to control them.

"We spend more than 70 percent of juvenile justice money on detention and under 30 percent on prevention. There are no follow-up services," McComb said.

"Violence in the media is a major health problem. It desensitizes, and kids mimic what they see," Villani said.

With two parents working and single-parent households, kids get less time with adults than ever -- including psychiatrists, who are limited by medical insurance, said several people at the meeting.

"Kids in American suburbs can name more brands of beer than U.S. presidents by age 9," Villani said. "Any child who brings a gun to school should have a comprehensive evaluation," she said.

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