`Punk' and Gothic Are Often Harmless, Psychiatrists Say: Students Join Subcultures for Acceptance

By Hart, Marybeth; Price, Joyce Howard | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 24, 1999 | Go to article overview

`Punk' and Gothic Are Often Harmless, Psychiatrists Say: Students Join Subcultures for Acceptance


Hart, Marybeth, Price, Joyce Howard, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Marc Herbert, a 17-year-old junior at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, talks about students in his school who are part of "punk" groups and "wear chains, super baggy pants, bright T-shirts and have spiked hair."

George Dirner, assistant principal at Fairfax High School, uses the term "skate-rats" to describe youths at his school who prefer skateboarding to other sports and who "wear the baggy pants and chains." But he adds he believes this trend is "fading."

Much attention has been focused on alternative youth subcultures since leaders of the Trench Coat Mafia, which has been labeled a "Goth" group, killed and bombed their way through a Colorado high school Tuesday. Goths tend to favor dark clothing, horror stories by Stephen King and Anne Rice, and heavy metal music by artists such as Marilyn Manson, who send disturbing messages about death, hatred and rebellion.

But experts - and even fellow students - say most youth who align themselves with unconventional subgroups are merely seeking acceptance, and that they eventually move back into the mainstream.

"All this stuff is not harmful for 90 percent of kids," said Scott Poland, chairman of the National Emergency Assistance Team for the National Association of School Psychologists, which helps out in the aftermath of such crises.

Peter Sheras, clinical professor of psychology at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, agrees. "We have many troubled children," he said. "Before you judge any child in a strange subculture . . . you need to find out how he interacts with his parents and other students, you need to determine if he cares about his grades and if he has any substance abuse problems, and you need to see if he's involved in other activities."

Kevin Dwyer, president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists, put it this way: "We have a tendency to latch onto superficial trappings, such as black trench coats . . . but the kids in Colorado are very disturbed youngsters . . . they could have been wearing ties and jackets" and still would have carried out the slaughter at their school.

Mr. Dwyer, a retired school psychologist in Montgomery County, said he worked with a group of adolescents who all dressed the same. "Some in that group may have needed help, and I addressed that. But most outgrew it," he said, adding:

"Kids find their identity, their comfort level within a group. That's normal behavior . . . the depth of the problem is not whether there are groups of kids. The depth of the problem is what those kids are doing."

As for the school murders in Colorado, Mr. Dwyer said he believes that even the average school-aged "skinhead" - a subgroup known to be white supremacists, to hate homosexuals and to carry out violence against those they oppose - would be "mortified" if asked to participate in the kind of mass killing conducted by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who also killed themselves.

Marc Herbert, the Washington-Lee student, said that's still the case today. "There are the athletes and popular crowd, then those who want to be like them .

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