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Growing Up Under Siege : It's dangerous out there. Guns in our schools. Gangs on our corners. Massacres in our movies. Kids running wild all night. Four families share their ways of coping with a threatening world.

CHILDREN & VIOLENCE: Confronting an Epidemic. First of three parts. Monday: The number of prevention programs has jumped from 80 to 300 in recent years. But can any program prevent youth violence?

July 11, 1993|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last March, seventh-grader Chris Lopez took a loaded semi-automatic handgun to Niguel Hills Middle School in suburban Laguna Niguel. It was a matter of self-defense, Chris said; he had heard rumors of death threats from another student.

Although no one was injured, the incident jolted school district officials, several of whom had children in the junior high. The issue of guns on campus was no longer merely headline material; it hit them where they lived.

Insisting it was an isolated incident, Capistrano Unified School District administrators invoked a "zero tolerance" policy and expelled Chris. The goal, said Superintendent James Fleming, was "to make schools safer places and to send a message loud and clear: There is no place for weapons in schools."

But what many adults don't understand, contends Chris, 14, is that today's world of adolescence is light-years away from the one they knew.

"There used to be fights with fists," he says. "Now, they take out a knife or a gun and that's it for you."

The violence surrounding our children is not only a matter of teen-agers fighting. Children of all ages commit violent acts. They witness violence at home and on movie and TV screens; they are victims of violent acts committed by adults. Now that the violence is turning increasingly deadly, society is asking: How did we get to this point? And what can we do about it?

Public dissatisfaction is reaching a "critical mass," said Deborah Prothrow-Stith, assistant dean at Harvard University School of Public Health. "I think it's the next big movement in our country--to prevent violence in our relationships."

The United States is notorious for the highest homicide rate among developed countries. But because of shifting definitions of crime and problems of accurate reporting, experts can only guess at the real increase and extent of violence. Some people, in fact, argue we are not more violent than ever, but that our increasing numbers only make it seem so.

But one definite measure of the violence that surrounds our children--youth homicide--has risen so dramatically that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled it an epidemic threatening the public health. The toll is highest for children under 5, whose deaths are mostly caused by abuse, and for adolescents, killed mostly by their peers.

In Los Angeles, the murder of teen-agers jumped 20% in five years, accounting in 1991 for 64% of all preventable teen deaths--surpassing car accidents and suicide--according to Children Now, a Los Angeles-based children's advocacy organization.

Moreover, officials estimate that, in general, for each homicide there are an additional 100 nonfatal injuries from shootings, stabbings or beatings.

It's difficult to pinpoint the causes of violence. Nonfatal violence--child, spousal and elder abuse--cuts across class and geography, but fatal violence is more concentrated in poor communities, Prothrow-Stith said. "We don't understand all of the causal factors, but we have some very good ideas.

"Clearly, children who witness a lot of violence, or are victims of violence in early childhood, are at risk. It's clear the presence of a gun increases the risk for fatal violence. It's clear watching lots of violence on TV, news and movies has an impact on children's behavior."

Some suggest children who grow up without fathers, especially if they are poor, are at greater risk for committing violence. Others say aggression can result from patterns of parenting: inept discipline, poor monitoring of children's time, and little positive involvement.

All factors contribute, Prothrow-Stith said. But she and other violence-prevention practitioners argue that adults' confused attitudes regarding violence are largely to blame.

"We literally teach our children to like violence, to laugh at violence, to enjoy violence," said Prothrow-Stith. "We don't want a wimp for a child. We want a child who can take care of him- or herself. . . . At our worst, we're telling our kids, 'You go back outside, you beat him up, or I'm going to beat you.' "

As a result, some kids want to arm themselves, others are afraid to go outside, and others have become so desensitized to violence they do not consider it unusual or terrible, said Leonard Eron, chair of the American Psychological Assn.'s Youth Violence Commission.

But through it all, many individuals--like some communities--are resilient. Not every child who watches TV or grows up in a violent, poor or single-parent family in the inner city becomes violent. Children in the same families, or the same communities with the same risk factors, take different paths.

Today, you will meet four Southland families whose lives have been touched by violence in the suburbs and in the inner cities:

* a father who plans to teach his children how to use guns;

* a girl who, secure in her parents' rules, relies on herself for protection;

* a mother and father who, rather than shunning violent movies, embrace them;

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