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Setting Our Children on the Path to Tragedy

March 07, 2000|SANDY BANKS

It commanded our horror for a day or two, the story of the Michigan 6-year-old who shot a little girl to death in their first-grade classroom.

But it is week-old news now, and we have moved on, most of us content to chalk the tragedy up to the easy availability of guns or the violence of movies and TV or the shortcomings of drug-addled parents who fail to teach their kids the difference between right and wrong. We shake our heads, then turn away, as if an angry 6-year-old with a gun were such an aberration, we need not reflect on what it might mean.

It seems we are afraid to consider that this tragedy might be not happenstance, but the actions of a child under siege, the legacy of a childhood stolen.

"This young boy appears not to have many advantages in life," said Michigan prosecutor Arthur Busch, in a classic case of understatement.

County Sheriff Robert Pickell was more blunt: "He was basically living in hell," Pickell told reporters. Hell, in this case, was a dilapidated, trash-strewn house where drugs apparently were used and sold, often in exchange for guns.

The 6-year-old and his 8-year-old brother had been living there with a 21-year-old uncle--sleeping on a couch in the living room--since the family was evicted from its home. The first-grader found the gun beneath a pile of blankets tossed on a bedroom floor.

Their mother is "involved with drugs" and has been unable or unwilling to care for her children, officials said. Their father is in jail for violating terms of his parole on an earlier conviction involving guns and drugs.

Neighborhood parents say the 6-year-old was known as a schoolyard bully. He had already been suspended twice for fighting and stabbing a classmate with a pencil.

Still, one mother said she couldn't help but feel sorry for the boy, watching him and his brother fend for themselves in a neighborhood where gunshots ring out night and day.

"Growing up in this neighborhood, the kids, all they know is drugs, prostitution, marijuana . . ." the boys' neighbor, Peter Fontaine, told reporters. "We're in the ghetto."

*

In the Los Angeles school system, guns in the hands of elementary schoolkids are "rare, but not unheard of," says Hector Madrigal, director of pupil services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Six years ago, a first-grader was expelled for bringing to school a replica of a gun (which he thought was real). And more than one second-grader has been caught on campus with a gun.

"If you think about it, we're lucky we haven't had a tragedy like this," says Madrigal. "After all, kids just model what goes on around them. They give back what society is giving them."

And just what are we giving kids like this Michigan 6-year-old?

I think of an elementary school principal I know--a suburban white guy who has spent 20 years on inner-city campuses--and the surprise he felt when he first heard the question: "Where do you go in your house when you hear gunshots outside?"

It came from a wide-eyed third-grader, who was equally surprised at the principal's answer: "I've never heard gunshots in my neighborhood."

And the principal realized then that most of the children who would pass through his classes hail from communities where violence is as much a part of the neighborhood landscape as the leafy oak trees that dot the streets in his childhood memories.

"I realized these are different times, a different environment," he said. "We can't presume these kids are growing up in the same kinds of families that we had, with the same advantages of innocence."

Over the years, he has observed countless tragedies in his students' lives, and grown to admire the fortitude shown by children who have been bounced among foster homes, who have watched parents die and siblings head for jail, who have gotten themselves up and off to school alone each morning because Dad was drunk or Mom was off smoking crack.

He recalls his epiphany: A face-off with an angry fifth-grader. "He'd cussed out his teacher, and when he came to my office, I went off on him. 'We will not put up with that here!' I said. He looked at me, said 'F--- you,' and walked out.

"So I suspended him. Called his house and told his grandmother--that's who he was living with--that he couldn't come back until she came in for a conference. She brought him in, sat there and watched me let him have it. And after I sent him back to class, she leaned over and said, 'Now, I have to talk to you.' "

And she filled him in on the circumstances of the boy's 11 years:

Both parents were dead. His father had been shot down in the street while he watched. His mother, a crack addict and prostitute, had died of AIDS. Before her death, she had spent years torturing him, sticking shards of glass into his arms, scarring them so badly he was still ashamed to wear short-sleeved shirts to school. He'd been beaten so badly and so often that before was 5, his skull had been fractured three times.

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