Teen Violence: Can It Be Prevented?

Mar 6, 2012
Originally published on March 7, 2012 2:24 pm
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly parenting conversation, and normally at this time we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense advice gleaned from their life experience.

But today we decided to go to a group that has spent years thinking about and writing about and working on a very specific but painful issue. We want to talk about violence involving youths that turns deadly.

Last week, 17-year-old T.J. Lane opened fire on students in the lunchroom at Chardon High School in Ohio. Three students died from their injuries. He's been charged as a juvenile with aggravated murder.

And just a few days earlier in California, 10-year-old Joanna Ramos died of a head injury after getting into a fight with an 11-year-old classmate after school. Authorities have not yet filed charges in that case.

Now, both of these incidents drew much national attention as of course they would, because they represent in many ways a parent's worst nightmare. You send your child off to school and he or she never comes home.

But we wanted to know, apart from the media spotlight, what researchers actually know about why this kind of violence happens, why it turns deadly and whether youth violence is actually getting worse. So we decided to bring in three experts in the study and prevention of youth violence.

Dave Cullen is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Columbine." He spent 10 years researching the shooting at Columbine High School, which happened in 1999.

Lawrence Steinberg is the distinguished professor of psychology at Temple University. He has done extensive research on youth violence and the psychological development during adolescence. In fact, he's considered one of the world's leading experts here.

Also with us, Tio Hardiman. He is the Illinois director for CeaseFire. That's an initiative that works with youth to curb street violence in Chicago. It was featured in the award-winning documentary "The Interrupters."

And I welcome you all and I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

DAVE CULLEN: Thanks, Michel.

TIO HARDIMAN: Good to be here.

MARTIN: And as you can imagine, there's a reason that we called each of you because one of the - is that each of you has become very concerned and has often written about or talked about the fact that we often seem to be drawing the wrong conclusion from these highly publicized incidents.

So Professor Steinberg, I'm going to start with you. We talked about these two stories that made headlines, but is there a trend we can point to here? Are today's young people more likely to commit a violent act than they were, say, 20 or 30 years ago?

LAWRENCE STEINBERG: Well - excuse me - there's a trend that we can point to and it's the opposite of what most people think. Youth violence has declined fairly steadily since the early 1990s and if you look at data on homicides that occur in or around schools, that has really dropped precipitously, so it's a very, very rare event.

Naturally they get a lot of attention because they're awful, terrible situations, but we shouldn't overreact to this and generalize from these incidents to the population of children and adolescents at large.

MARTIN: Dave Cullen, as we said, you have extensive research. You've done extensive research on school shootings, especially the infamous shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. And you wrote a piece recently saying we keep telling the same false stories about school shooters.

So tell us, what are some of the misconceptions that you're concerned about that seem to arise after a situation like this?

CULLEN: Sure. We still do. We immediately go to the school shooter profile of these kids as loners, outcasts, people who were bullied, and sometimes we include other factors like, you know, targeting people for revenge and troubled homes.

Just about all that stuff is wrong. There were two definitive reports done - studies - one by the Secret Service and one by the FBI - they both came to the same conclusion, that there is no accurate or useful profile. These kids come from all different backgrounds. For instance, only one-third of them were loners.

So sometimes the shooters fit some of these characteristics, but the idea that, you know, this is what they look like is completely wrong, and what happens is, as soon as we have one of these, both witnesses and people in the media start cuing in on this sort of expected story, on this narrative, and start finding data to fit that and almost always immediately pigeonhole the person into that profile, thereby continuing to propagate the myth that it exists.

MARTIN: Tio Hardiman, let's bring you into this conversation because you work with young people, and one of the things that I know you're concerned about is that there often isn't enough attention paid to more random youth violence or more typical youth violence in your community because it's so common. I mean, for example, more than 700 kids were hit by gunfire during the year 2010, which is the last year that complete figures are available.

So what are you most concerned about when you hear a story like this?

HARDIMAN: Well, mainly we have to get the word out that violence is learned behavior, you know, passed down from generation to generation. We need more stories in the media about how young people have worked out conflict without the use of violence because that way you can begin the process of unlearning violent behavior.

For example, in Chicago, we work with over 1,100 high-risk youths in year 2011 and we helped turn a lot of these guys around as far as their thinking, because violence spreads like an infectious disease. And let me make a quick point here. What happens when you hear about school shootings throughout the nation over the years, a lot of young guys, they're still impacted with those thoughts. So in their minds, some people's minds, it's OK to go to a school and shoot people because it's been done before. We have to find a way to intercept those kinds of messages and get some real positive messaging going out there in the young people's minds.

MARTIN: Prof. Steinberg, I also wanted to ask you about this story involving this, terrible story involving this 10-year-old girl...


MARTIN: ...who died after this, a fistfight, and you could see where, you know, maybe that the girl - we don't really know exactly what happened. Maybe she hit her head or, you know, something like that, so really perhaps it isn't really a violent incident, so much that it is an accident. But again, it raises the question, are girls becoming more violent? Is there something that you think we should know about that story that perhaps we aren't thinking about?

STEINBERG: Well, there, you know, there has been an increase in violent behavior among girls, you know, relative to what there has been in the past. And so we're, you know, the ratio of risk for violent crimes male to female in the adolescent period was something like, you know, six or seven or eight to one. It's now more like four to one. And yeah, you know, I think then as sex rules begin to become more broken down and the boundaries become more broken down that we can expect to see the behavior of girls and boys being more and more similar.

And that said, you know, kids have always gotten into fights and my suspicion is that when we get all the facts of this case in Long Beach we're going to see that something very unusual probably happened. Maybe the girl had a pre-existing condition. Maybe she hit her head on something hard. It's hard to imagine being hit by a 10-year-old child forcefully enough to, you know, to die.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about youth violence in light of two recent stories that have captured the nation's attention. We're talking about a young girl who died after a fight with a classmate after school in California. She was only 10 years old. And we're also talking about that school shooting in Ohio that left three young people dead.

My guests are Prof. Laurence Steinberg, Dave Cohen, author of the bestseller "Columbine," and Tio Hardiman of CeaseFire Illinois. It's a group that tries to interrupt and disrupt violence between youths.

So let's wheel it around and talk about, now that we've talked a little bit about some of the misconceptions that you, the lessons you don't want people to draw from these incidents, can we talk about what lessons you would people to draw from. What would you like people to start learning from these incidents?

And so Dave Cohen, I'll start with you, 'cause I'm also curious to know what surprised you about what you learned about Columbine when you dug more deeply into it. And are there things that you feel that people should learn from these stories that perhaps we are not learning?

DAVE COHEN: Oh, definitely. Well, you know, one of the- the biggest surprises for me with Columbine in some ways is that it was such an outlier. It was an atypical case for a lot of reasons but one, there were two shooters and we're always kind of lumping - this is where we're lumping all the school shooters together. We lumped those two guys together as if we keep asking why did they do it, you know, why did they shoot up Columbine?

Well, there was why did Eric do it and why did Dylan do it. They were completely different. And Eric was a psychopath, a sadistic psychopath, which is really rare, and he was the driver of that event, but that's hardly ever true in the school shootings. And so we shouldn't sort of go after that as a source because it's hardly ever the problem.

The other shooter, Dylan, is very, very typical where he was a very, very depressed suicidal kid, an angry depressive, you know, deeply for two years in his journal talking seriously about committing suicide, and that is much more commonly the problem. And if we treat troubled kids who have experienced, you know, a sense of failure, who are severely depressed or considering suicide, we will save all sorts of kids from themselves and also shooters in the process.

And I think that dovetails really closely with what Tio was saying. You know, I like what I heard from him is treating the whole class of kids who are at risk and, you know, if we can save them all from themselves and from, you know, things like dropping out of high school, getting involved with drugs, gangs, teen pregnancy, we solve all those things and in the process we'll eliminate most of the shooters without that being our primary intent.

MARTIN: Tio, what else, what do you think? What have you, you've actually worked, you know, very closely with kids and trying to get involved and you also supervise a lot of other people who do this kind of work. What are some of the things that you've learned over time that you think might applicable to other situations?

HARDIMAN: Yeah, lessons learned is that we need curriculums in the schools that deal with behavioral change. You know, I had a guy a year ago, Michel, that told me that he would put me to sleep if I keep getting in his business. I was trying to save the life of an 18-year-old young guy from the Austin community on the West Side of Chicago. But to make a long story short, we saved the guys life and I'm still here today. But more of dealing with the thinking because it starts with a seed being planted and it starts with peer pressure.

So in these particular schools we just had a guy that was - just stabbed another kid to death in Chicago last week on the premises of a school on the South Side of Chicago. But these guys had been involved in conflict for the last two or three months, you know, against one another. And we have to identify these situations before they like get out of control. So I'm really supporting the process of getting more curriculum in schools that deal with behavioral change and addressing these issues with the youths so that they don't have to think violently and they do have to give into peer pressure. Those are the lessons learned from our staff. And we continue to organize peace summits, behavioral change summits just to get new information in these young people's minds.

MARTIN: And Prof. Steinberg, what about you?

STEINBERG: Well, I find it astounding that we're having this conversation and we're not talking about guns.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

STEINBERG: You know, I mean I think it's absolutely correct that we ought to be delivering mental health services to kids who need it and we ought to be teaching kids peaceful ways of conflict resolution. But adolescence has always been a time when individuals get into fights compared to other developmental periods. And the big difference to me between today and previous generations is not kids, it's the opportunity and access that, you know, that they have to get their hands on guns. And so a lot of these fights, you know, that might have occurred as fistfights in the past now occur as shootings. And we've got to do something about limiting young people's access to guns.

This 17-year-old in Ohio was able just to go into his grandfather's closet, you know, and take out a handgun and bring it to school. And until we're able to, you know, to stop that from happening I think that these incidents are going to come, you know, every once in a while.

MARTIN: And Tio, what you think about that? Because one of the things that you've talked about is just that it is extremely easy for kids to get guns. In fact, they even have - this has been reported recently that there are even sort of sharing systems. It's almost like they're lending libraries for guns. It's just is not hard at all for kids to get access to guns. Do you think that that's true?

HARDIMAN: Yeah. You can get access to a gun the same way you can buy a bootleg gym shoes or a bootleg DVD. And we definitely need to do more about getting the guns off the streets. But let me say this clearly. I had a chance to meet with Prime Minister David Cameron over in London a few months ago. And in the country of England you have about 17 to 16,000 knife crimes over there. So if we don't address the thinking, no matter if they have a gun or not, somebody's going to find a way to hurt somebody because they've already been infected with this violent type of thinking. And so my main thing is to drive home change in the way people think all the time.

MARTIN: Dave Cohen, I'm going to give you kind of the final word here. The other thing that I was intrigued by in your reporting is how you pointed out how very often kids do tell somebody that they're going to do something. They're giving all kinds of warning signs, you know, before something actually happens. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

COHEN: Yeah, that's one of the most - yeah, that's one of the most astounding things. Eight-one percent of the shooters in the Secret Service study had told someone. And we're not talking about warning signs here or picking up on clues. This is where someone actually explicitly says he's going to do it, and in most of those cases they told more than one person.

But here's the kicker, here's the hard part. Only 7 percent of those people told adults. They almost always tell their friends. Some of the friends post-Columbine now do report but quite a few of them don't. They take it either as a joke, or not so much a joke as kind of a hollow boast, like he doesn't really mean it. So again we get back to much of what we've been talking about and what Tio's been talking about here is opening up the communication with kids. Getting them to feel where they're talking to adults, where they feel safe talking to an adult and where a kid doesn't feel like he's necessarily ratting on someone as much as talking to an adult like hey, there's something that I'm a little unsure about here that my buddy said that maybe we should talk about. So somebody who's out of that peer situation can evaluate it and, you know, we can stop most of these, you know, 81 percent is an easy way to stop most of them because they told us.

MARTIN: Dave Cohen is the author of The New York Times bestseller "Columbine." He was with us from NPR New York. Tio Hardiman is the Illinois director for CeaseFire, which works with youths to curb youth violence in Chicago. He was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Laurence Steinberg is the Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Temple University and an internationally recognized expert on youth violence and youth behavior. He was kind enough to join us by phone from Laguna Beach, California where he is traveling.

I recognized that we just scratched the surface here, gentlemen but I thank you so much for speaking with us.

HARDIMAN: Thank you.

STEINBERG: You're welcome.

COHEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.