On the Richter Scale Of Teenage Crime, Every Shock Counts

IMAGINE you are the father of a 17-year-old daughter, a high school junior who is a good student and well-liked by her classmates. On a Saturday evening late in August, you and your wife leave your two-story brick home in a well-manicured Midwestern neighborhood to attend a class reunion. Your daughter and a girlfriend are staying home to watch a video. At 9 p.m., a boy she hasn't seen for three years stops by to say hello. Soon he asks to use the telephone. Unknown to your daughter, he invites other teenage boys to a ''big booze party'' at your house. The word spreads quickly, and before long 40 boys have arrived, bottles of beer in hand, some of them already feeling the effects of too much alcohol. All too quickly, their party spirit takes a frightening turn. The revelers stamp out cigarettes on the carpet. They pour beer into your computer and telephone. They rip a hole in a porch screen. They steal a VCR, gold jewelry, money, and other possessions. When your daughter tries to stop them, they shout obscenities and hit her, leaving her with a black eye and an injured ankle. Your daughter's friend calls 911. But when the police arrive, they do little more than laugh, saying ''Wait 'til your parents come home - you're really going to be in trouble.'' When you and your wife return, your house is in shambles. It took the group only an hour to cause damages and losses that could total $3,000. As a parent, what do you do? That's the real-life problem facing a father in Illinois. If he signs a complaint with the police, he fears the boys will retaliate with more violence. If he doesn't, he knows he is sending the teens a silent message: You can be destructive and get away with it. In suburb after quiet suburb across the country, students and parents alike tell of ''keggers'' and other gatherings that get out of hand when ''good kids'' from ''good'' middle-class homes gain illegal access to alcohol. For the most part these incidents go unprosecuted - minor-league offenses in a country where crime is more often tallied in terms of guns and murders. Even in cases where students deliberately host such parties during their parents' absence, such destructive behavior by those attending signals a disturbing indifference to violence. Not long after the Illinois incident, the Department of Justice released a study on juvenile crime. Between 1983 and 1992, the department reports, the arrest rate nationwide doubled for 10-to-17-year-olds involved in violent crimes. During the next decade, it expects the rate to double again. Most teenagers know right from wrong and never get in trouble with the law. But for the family cleaning up this destruction, frustration centers around three groups. First, the father is troubled by the boys' attitudes: ''These kids think it was all just a big fun game. They're laughing. But we spent hours dealing with the aftermath. I'm not laughing.'' Second, he is amazed at the defensiveness of parents. When he called the father of the boy who instigated the gathering, the man denied that his son had done anything wrong. ''Nobody wants to accept responsibility,'' the father says sadly. ''The parents don't even want to hear about it. They all say, 'My son wouldn't do that' and imply that their son is perfect.'' Finally, he is disappointed with the police response, although he understands that they must deal with far more serious offenses than this. Once, a single incident like this in a well-tended neighborhood would have shocked the police and the parents of the community, and the teenagers as well. Now, on the Richter scale of teenage crime, where it takes a drive-by killing to score a 10, beering up and trashing a house barely makes the chart. What, no big-time drugs even? Where's the big deal? Yet, as every law enforcement officer and parent knows, or should, accommodating the small wrongs is what makes the big wrongs possible, and that is a crime in itself.

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