As Youth Murders Rise, Schools Teach Protection

WHEN bullets came through her Roxbury apartment again on Christmas day last year, Ellen Renrick knew it was time to move. A single mother on welfare with an 18-month-old son, Ms. Renrick moved to temporary public housing in quiet Peabody, 25 miles north of Boston.

``It wasn't a bunch of old men shooting at each other,'' she says of the violence that drove her from Roxbury. It was armed teenagers in open conflict. In a study released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, armed teenagers between 15 and 19 are shooting and killing each other all across America at an alarming and increasing rate.

``We have an epidemic of firearms death among young men,'' says Mark Rosenberg, head of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. ``And it cuts across all races.''

The study reported that from 1985 to 1991, the annual rate for homicide for male teenagers between 15 and 19 increased by 154 percent. Firearms took the lives of 88 percent of the 15- to 19-year-olds killed in 1991.

Violence among teenagers - murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault - and violence in 80 percent of public schools, has increased for the last three years, according to a study by the National School Boards Association, even though violent crime rates in the US declined in 1993.

Reliance on parents

``Never has America permitted children to rely on guns and gangs rather than parents and neighbors for protection and love,'' said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, at a recent Harvard Medical School graduation.

A year ago, pollster Louis Harris of LH Research in New York testified at the Children's Express National Hearings on Violence that 59 percent of the youngsters in a national survey said they knew where they could get a handgun if they wanted one; 36 percent said they could get one within an hour. Nine percent said they had shot at someone with a handgun.

``I think what is happening is that many kids are terribly disconnected and isolated from the fundamental building blocks of family, community, school, and church,'' says John Calhoun, head of the National Crime Prevention Council in Washington, an organization that implements crime-prevention programs in schools and communities.

The disconnection not only breeds crime and violence, sociologists say, but also a sense that teens are not responsible for others or to a community. ``The message we need for kids is to say to them, `we need you, you are part of us,''' he says. ``This is a powerful thrust, hitting at a fundamental ache to belong, to be needed and feel useful.''

Many national and community organizations and schools are reaching out to teenagers and providing programs that encourage and engage their energies and hopes. ``A school in Florida called us,'' says Mr. Calhoun, ``and said they hated the atmosphere that a metal detector was creating in the school. But they needed it because they were screening out 10 to 12 weapons a day.''

Giving to community

Calhoun's group then launched a program named ``Teens, Crime, and Community'' that hinges on teens studying about themselves from the perspective of self-protection, and contributing to their community. As part of the program, the teens also work to eliminate a specific crime problem. Over 40 schools around the country are using the program. ``The success of the program rests with the kids in changing the ethos of the school,'' says Calhoun. ``They own it. They say, `we didn't come here to fight and brawl. We want to be responsible citizens.' In Florida the metal detector was removed in about four months.''

Philanthropist Walter Annenberg became so concerned about violence in schools and among teenagers that 10 months ago he pledged $500 million to combat it. Administered through Brown University in Providence, R.I., the money could have a major impact on ``grass-roots reform'' in many school systems around the country.

``A project under way in New York schools is the first,'' says Don Ernst, Director of Policy at the Annenberg Institute at Brown, ``and the effort is to reduce the size of urban high schools. By the year 2000 there will be hundreds of small, intimate places for kids to learn rather than their being warehoused in these giant urban settings.''

``The project is really demanding that more adults in schools be responsible to kids,'' says Mr. Ernst. ``The bizarre thing is that in a lot of our schools, adults have no contact with kids. If more adults are concerned about nurturing the hearts and minds of youth, then it's more likely the kids won't be beating up on somebody. What we want is teachers, administrators, parents, and community folks to radically rethink how school is organized for kids.''

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.