Study Offers Profile of Youth Violence

Article excerpt

On the eve of the anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, the question remains: What makes children murderously angry?

Youth violence most often is traced to family breakdown, such as father absence or emotional distance between parents and children, a Florida group says.

Research published this month in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) says violent youths can be identified as early as the seventh grade.

A separate study in the same issue of AJPH finds that more than 1 million homes store guns in a way that is "accessible" to children.

Family First has been studying youth violence for several years, said Mark Merrill, founder and president of the Tampa, Fla., group, which recently released a report, "Why Are Kids So Angry?"

Looking at the evidence, "we came to believe that family breakdown was a real root cause" for why some children grew up to become dangerous, Mr. Merrill said.

Father absence was particularly crucial, he said, citing a recent Family First survey of 742 juvenile offenders in Florida.

Seventy-two percent of the young offenders said they "didn't have a father involved in their lives as they grew up," he said. "They never had a dad to teach them the difference between right and wrong."

Asked about the fact that some teen-age killers have come from two-parent homes, Mr. Merrill said that it wasn't enough for parents to be there physically.

"Parents have to be there emotionally, too," he said.

The Family First report said that the "recipe for self-destruction" begins when parents neglect a child, either because they are wrestling with marital difficulties or because a parent leaves home.

The child can become aggressive and difficult to control, and may feel acceptance only among children with similar characteristics - i.e., a gang.

The report says the entertainment industry contributes to a violent world view by popularizing bloody, senseless violence, while the computer gaming industry gives children the power to "kill" in their games.

Finally, "peer pressure, coupled with drug and alcohol abuse," creates a "toxic combination" that can lead to serious violence, the report said.

The primary antidote to youth violence is personal involvement, the report concluded. It recommended that schools adopt:

* Student-led prevention programs to detect conflicts before they escalate. The Youth Crime Watch of America is an example of a youth-led program that tracks crime reporting, school patrols and student mentoring.

* Conflict-resolution and peer-mediation programs to help students resolve conflicts. King High School in Tampa, for example, has a "peace table," where students and a trained mediator meet to work out problems.

* Character curricula that focus on "principles of civility and respect for others. …