Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Standing Up to Violence

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Standing Up to Violence

Article excerpt

THE PREMATURE death of young James Darby, the 9-year-old New Orleans boy who was shot in the head during a drive-by shooting as he walked home from a Mother's Day picnic last spring, was, at the time, just the latest in a long progression of heartbreaking stories marking an American childhood world that seems to have gone mad with vicious and random violence.

"I want you to stop the killing in the city," the youngster had desperately pleaded in a letter to President Clinton just nine days before his murder. "I think someone might kill me. I'm asking you nicely to stop it. I know you can do it."

Young James was both prophetically right and understandably wrong in his plea. He was right that violence in his city, indeed in almost every U.S. city and in many suburbs and towns as well, threatens tens of thousands of children and teenagers with bodily and psychological harm. And he was right that this societal sickness would soon claim him as well. As we all know, danger and fear stalk too many of our homes, streets, and schools, and -- more than any other group -- children and teenagers are its victims, as well as its perpetrators.

But James was wrong in thinking that the "most powerful man in the world" -- even acting with the full force of government -- could stop the scourge of violence that is cutting short so many young lives. It will take a far more profound and widespread response than any President can muster to end this latest social plague that deprives so many young people of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Following James' death, President Clinton wrote his classmate, trying to console them: "I am deeply saddened to learn of his tragic death, and I assure each of you that I'm determined to answer James' plea with tough and smart solutions to the crime problems in America."

The President then invoked James Darby's tragic tale as he pressed the Congress to end six years of partisan bickering and pass his omnibus crime bill. The final version of the bill included $5 billion for youth programs. But two-thirds of the "pork" cut in the final congressional debate came from funds that would have been directed to youth.

Even with the President's signature on this bill, though, the task of once more making the world safe for and from young people will be a long and arduous one. Many law enforcement officials, while pleased to get additional help, are skeptical about the ultimate impact of the law on crime -- and particularly on youth crime.

"The current crime bill and its 'more police on the streets and more prisons' approach is not likely to have the effects that they are selling," confides an FBI agent who works with the public schools and young people in Washington, D.C. "Congress has been passing similar crime bills since Nixon was in office more than 20 years ago, and it obviously hasn't had much impact. There are already three times as many people in jail as 15 years ago. The problem starts at home and in the community. Not enough people care about the things they should care about," he argues.

CARNAGE IN THE STREETS

Every two days, guns kill the equivalent of a class of 25 youngsters and injure 60 more, according to the Children's Defense Fund, which has a memorable way of presenting statistics. Adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 are killed with a gun at a rate of one every three hours. In fact, an American child today is 15 times more likely to be killed by gunfire than was a child in war-ravaged Northern Ireland before the recent peace talks.

Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled. Today homicide is the third leading cause of death for all children between the ages of 5 and 14, the second leading cause of death for all young people between the ages of 10 and 24, and the leading cause of death among African Americans of both sexes between the ages of 15 and 34. Teen-agers are more than 2 1/2 times as likely to be victims of violent crime as are those over 20 years of age. …

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