On the morning of December 1, 1997, an informal prayer group was gathered in the lobby of Heath High School in western Kentucky. Just before the start of classes, Michael Carneal, a freshman at the school, opened fire in the lobby. The youth, wearing earplugs, pulled out a .22-caliber handgun at about 7:45 a.m. and opened fire, killing three girls and wounding five other students ( Student Kills Two ). Unfortunately, Michael Carneal s actions represent a growing trend in society: youth violence. Due to the rise in the number of violent crimes committed by people under the age of 18, youth violence has become a serious national concern. Since 1980, the rate of violence among American juveniles has steadily increased. In fact, between 1984 and 1993, the rate of arrests for violent crimes among juveniles climbed by nearly 68% (Noguera 1). As Pedro Noguera, professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, points out, this figure is particularly alarming given that many incidents of violence are not reported to the police (1). Also, statistics show that the homicide rate for juveniles has exceeded the adult rate since 1989, and the juvenile arrest rate for all types of violent crimes has surpassed the rate recorded for adults since 1980 (Noguera 1). Furthermore, criminologists expect juvenile crime to rise by 114% over the next decade (Burbach 1).The growing trend of youth violence must be curbed. However, before the problem can be solved, it is important to understand its causes, although clearly defined causes do not exist. Instead, a set of variables, or risk factors , is associated with violent behavior (Noguera 2). This principle suggests that an individual or group act of violence is a result of multiple factors that accumulate over time (”Factors”).
At the individual level, personality characteristics such as low self-esteem and an impulsive, risk-taking temperament may cause a person to tend toward violent crime. Also, one s personal history may contribute to his or her inclination towards violence. Victimization, frustration, and reinforcement of prior aggression and violence may perpetuate this behavior. For example, Michael Carneal s High School principal noted that the boy s school essays and short stories revealed that he felt weak and picked on ( Who Is Michael Carneal? ). Carneal admitted “after his arrest that he had grown tired of constant teasing and had struck out in anger at the world” (Hoffman). Fifteen days after Michael Carneal’s shooting spree, 14-year-old Joseph Todd “reputedly shot and wounded two teen schoolmates at Stamps High School in Arkansas because he was tired of being picked on” (Hoffman). He, too, defended himself by saying that “he was tired of being picked on by stronger schoolmates, some of whom extorted money from him in exchange for sparing him a beating” (Hoffman). This evidence suggests that the boys’ actions toward their classmates developed from a feeling of victimization and low self-esteem.
Another factor contributing to juvenile violence includes behavioral models such as culture and personal relationships. In fact, Pedro Noguera suggests the following:Violence is a learned behavior which may be consciously and unconsciously reinforced through child-rearing practices or promoted by the media and other expressions of popular culture through subtle and blatant images. Even our collective response to the threat of violence often manifests itself through some other form of violence: we sanction the killing of killers, and accept the notion that personal safety can be achieved by allowing citizens to be armed (3).Various aspects of popular culture including television, movies, comic books, and music influence children s perceptions of society and its boundaries. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), destructive behavior in real life follows television and movie violence like night follows day ( Parents Must Ration TV ). In Japan, for example, a series of copycat knifing incidents have occurred involving butterfly knives, “a collapsible knife used by a character played by a pop singer Takuya Kimura in a Fiji TV drama series” (Herksovitz). In fact, the crime rate for Japanese youths has risen by more than 60% over the past two years, which has caused the Japanese government to launch a panel aimed at protecting the country’s youth from violence and obscene material in the media (Herksovitz).
An especially harmful aspect of violence in the media is its glorification. Based on a study sponsored by the cable industry and conducted across four universities, perpetrators of violence go unpunished in nearly three-quarters of all violent scenes. More disturbingly, in more than half of such scenes, victims display no pain, which may send out a signal that violence is not hurtful (Moret). Cartoons and video games, in particular, provide excellent examples of situations in which violence flourishes and the victims apparently experience no pain. Of course, the adult population is aware that cartoons and video games are animated and do not represent reality, but children are very impressionable and may not realize that cartoons and games are entertainment, not role models. Based on this perception, children may develop a disregard for consequences of violent acts. In fact, violent crime among 13- to 17-year-old teenagers increased 126 percent from 1976 to 1992 due to TV violence, according to the AMA ( Parents Must Ration TV ).Furthermore, personal relationships impress the behavior of children. Often, parents are the first to be blamed when their child commits a crime, though they may not always be responsible. However, parents may deserve the blame if the violent child witnesses or suffers from violent acts at home and lacks a firm morality that teaches right from wrong. In this case, the child learns to accept violence and reacts with violence. Ghetto youngsters who lack proper parental supervision face the same fate because they turn to their peers for nurture and solace, and in crime-ridden neighborhoods peers can include gang members, drug dealers, drug users, gun runners an endless array of malign influences (Herbert).Besides individual characteristics and behavioral models, causes of youth violence also stem from situations. Disinhibitors such as alcohol and drugs, which can lead to a loss of control, are often cited as factors that lead to violent behavior (”Factors”). Government studies show that the increase in teen violence and drug use parallels each other. Over the past five years, teen violence nearly doubled. Simultaneously, “LSD use among eight-graders jumped from 2.7 percent to 4.4 percent; cocaine use almost doubled to 4.2 percent; and crack use more than doubled to 2.7 percent” (Clinton Targets Teens”). In situations that would usually be dealt with in a rational manner, the presence of alcohol or drugs drastically increases the risk of violence. In New Jersey, for example, a group of teenagers were drinking in the basement of their friend’s house, and an uninvited girl arrived at the party. A guest suggested that someone get rid of her, and following this advice, another guest, who had been drinking, took the girl outside and stabbed her to death. The availability of weapons also contributes to the frequency of juvenile crime. On October 1, 1997, Luke Woodham, a 16-year-old from Pearl, Mississippi, was charged with stabbing his mother to death and fatally shooting two female classmates, including his former girlfriend. Then, on December 1, 1997, Michael Carneal made headlines with his massacre at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky. Fifteen days later, Joseph Todd pulled a gun on two classmates at Stamps High School in Arkansas. Also, on March 24, 1998, two young boys, Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden, dressed in camouflage, lay waiting in the bushes outside a school in Jonesboro, Arkansas. As the school emptied due to a fire drill, the boys took aim at their classmates, wounding many and killing five, including a teacher. Doug Golden, the grandfather of Andrew, told reporters that the boy “admitted stealing three rifles, four handguns, and several boxes of ammunition from his house” (”Boy ‘Selected’ Victims” A4). In each of the aforementioned cases, firearms were easily accessible. Although firearms are not a cause of violent behavior, they contribute to its frequency.Research indicates that poverty is also a significant factor related to violence. Over the past fourteen years, “the number of extremely poor Americans whose income is 50% of the federal poverty level or lower has increased by 45%” (”Poverty and Violence 1). Concurrently, rates of violence began to rise. Children living among poverty in inner cities are especially at risk of being involved with violence. In such communities, children are usually not viewed as a priority and, thus, not provided with intervention programs or activities (”Poverty and Violence”).Violent behavior among youth can not be blamed on only TV or poor parenting, which are the usual scapegoats. As one can see, youth violence stems from several factors: personality characteristics, self-esteem, behavioral models, presence of drugs and alcohol, availability of weapons, and poverty. A combination of these factors, or just one condition, may contribute to a violent disposition. Once the roots of violence have been discovered and examined, solving the problem becomes the next step. However, solving the problem may be just as difficult as pinpointing the causes. It is important to remember that today’s youth are the future of the world, and measures must be taken to ensure their safety and prosperity before it is too late.
“Boy Selected Victims”. The Arizona Republic. 26 March 1998: A4.
Herksovitz, Jon. “Japan Confronts TV Violence.” Yahoo! 5 March 1998. (5 April 1998).
Hoffman, Lisa. “Clinton Asks Reno to Assess Any links in Slayings at Schools.” The Arizona Republic. 26 March 1998: A4.
Moret, Jim. “Study: Harmful Violence Pervades TV.” CNN World News. 7 February 1998. (22 March 1998).
Noguera, Pedro. “Reducing and Preventing Youth Violence.” In Motion Magazine. 1995. (22 March 1998).
“Parents Must Ration TV to Cut Teen-age Violence.” CNN World News. 9 Sept. 1996. (22 March 1998).
“Poverty and Violence.” Washington Youth and Family Violence Prevention. 11 January 1998. (5 April 1998).
“Student Kills 2, Wounds 6 at Kentucky School.” CNN World News. 1 December 1997. (22 March 1998).
“Who Is Michael Carneal?” CNN World News. 3 December 1997. (22 March 1998).