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Valley Perspective

To Cut Violence, Focus on At-Risk Boys, Not Law Enforcement

If we want adolescents to behave humanely and responsibly, then someone in their world must model those values.

September 03, 2000|AARON KIPNIS | Aaron Kipnis of Santa Barbara is the author of "Angry Young Men: How Parents, Teachers, and Counselors Can Help 'Bad Boys' Become Good Men."

At the funeral of 15-year-old kidnap and slaying victim Nicholas Markowitz, Rabbi James Lee Kaufman said, "There are deaths, such as this, when we can't shake an angry finger at God and say, 'Why?' We can only look to ourselves."

And so we should.

With the execution-style killing of this West Hills teenager, allegedly over a drug debt owed by his older half brother, the white-flight meccas of the San Fernando Valley have joined the ranks of affluent American communities shaken by the killing of innocent teens.

Four of the five suspects played together in a West Hills baseball league in the early '90s. Three of them, aged 20 and 21, and a 17-year-old juvenile have pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping and murder; a fifth suspect remained at large at deadline.

Youth gun violence, once largely thought of as an urban gang problem, is increasingly occurring in America's suburbs and small towns. As long as we view this as primarily a law enforcement problem, however, it is doomed to grow worse. If we want to reduce crime and violence, we would do better to highly concentrate community resources on adolescent boys at risk and their families instead of building more youth prisons.

Many suburban boys today have something in common with inner-city gang boys: a profound feeling of alienation and a perceived lack of protection from others who corrode their emotional self-esteem or threaten their safety.

According to the latest U.S. statistical abstracts, American boys suffer the highest rates of violent trauma in the industrialized nations. In 1999, males were the majority of abused, neglected and abandoned children. They were three out of four assault victims, homeless youths and drug addicts, and four of every five suicide and homicide victims. We also have more young men incarcerated in juvenile halls, jails, psychiatric hospitals, youth corrections and adult prisons than any other nation.

Homicide is the second leading cause of death for American youth; we have 10 times the youth homicide rate of Canada, 15 times Australia's and 28 times Germany's.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in five suburban boys now owns a gun; even more have been threatened with one.

Handguns kill 13 children a day in the U.S. and 13 people a year in Sweden. But guns alone are not the problem. Drugs, the media, video games and rap can't carry all the blame. Tougher laws and more prisons won't solve the crisis and neither will posting the Ten Commandments in "zero tolerance" schools that are expelling record numbers of boys.

As Jesse Jackson puts it, the problem isn't that we have failed to make young men afraid enough. "The real problem is that our young people are not hopeful enough."

Four of the five suspects played youth baseball together during the early 1990s. Three of them later compiled arrest records. Yet judging from news reports describing how Markowitz was held for several days at a Santa Barbara home, it appears that none of the adults in their lives knew much about where they spent time, what they were doing and with whom.

If we want our boys to behave humanely and responsibly, someone in their world must model those values. Violence can be a provocative response to a seemingly indifferent world--an attempt to get a reaction, any reaction, from distracted or inured adults.

A young man who perceives that no one passionately cares about his welfare might well think, "Why should I care?" That gaping void in the soul is the biggest drug lure of all. Drugs can obscure the demoralizing hole in a boy's life where a positively engaged adult is supposed to be generating hope, guidance, protection and opportunity.

*

Treating the underlying social, familial and spiritual conditions that provoke youth to seek the temporary pain relief of drugs is the most effective youth crime and violence prevention strategy we could ever devise. But that means, as Rabbi Kaufman advises, we must find the courage to look to ourselves.

The "new prosperity" is consuming many upwardly mobile parents today as its frenetic pace erodes the family, kinship and community ties that once protected and directed youth. The new economy has not improved our schools, reduced child poverty, allowed parents more quality time with kids or increased community services for youth at risk. Many American fathers spend as little as 10 minutes a day with their children.

Today, suburban kids see "who wants to be a millionaire" values celebrated in their communities. Drug-dealing youth simply mimic these adult consumer-driven values. Every time a boy slips through the grasp of parents, teachers, counselors, clergy and juvenile courts, we create a potential new drug user or gang member. Alienation is a more powerful generator of drug abuse and crime than any street-corner recruitment.

The father of Jesse James Hollywood, a suspect in the Markowitz case, summed up the alienation that plagues our era by saying of his son, "I haven't been able to talk to him in a long time."

So, parents, spend some time with your teenagers today and discuss their feelings about this story. Help keep them engaged in productive activities, know their friends, know where they are and what they do outside the home. Interact with your community leaders, your kids' schools and regularly communicate with your children's friends' parents.

Few of us can raise healthy kids alone. Even a few hours a week invested in your adolescent's life can prevent a lifetime of future suffering. It's a highly leveraged investment with no upper limit on the return.

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