Pondering Jonesboro: Consider Gender

PRESIDENT Clinton has asked Attorney General Janet Reno to analyze the schools where recent shootings occurred. He wants her to identify similarities between them and advise on how to prevent attacks.

Mr. Clinton is struggling with the question that grips us all: Why did two boys open fire on their schoolmates in Jonesboro, Ark. last week?

But the president and much of the media are mistaken in addressing the Jonesboro killings as a problem of "school violence."

The sad truth about the Jonesboro murders is that they were the result of an attack by boys directed specifically at girls. The school just happened to be the setting.

When four black girls were killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala. or when, more recently, a number of black churches were burned, there was no call for an investigation of church violence. It was clear to us that the problem was racial violence and the churches were just the setting.

The headlines asking "Are Our Schools Safe?" create understandable concern. But the reality is that school violence in general is on the decline. The National School Safety Center reported a decline in homicides at school since 1993, with 25 murders a year in the last two years. There is no reason to see the source of the problem as residing in the schools. Commentators and analysts have pointed not only to schools themselves, but also to violence on television, the proliferation of guns, the stresses on adolescents, and the lack of ties to adults as causes of the carnage. Probably all of these played a part.

Yet seemingly unnoticed is the fact that boys were the perpetrators in the three cases of mass murder in US schools in the past six months.

The young Jonesboro suspect's stated motive that he wanted to kill girls who had broken up with him is reported without comment. Is it so thoroughly taken for granted that males are perpetrators of violence and females their appropriate victims that we need not discuss the matter further?

The news coverage of the gender issue in this story has been limited to a focus on "girlfriend trouble," with major papers reporting that the 13-year-old suspect was "jilted" by a girl who was later wounded in the attack.

Webster's defines "jilt" as capriciously or unfeelingly casting aside a lover. Is this the appropriate word to describe the behavior of an 11-year-old girl who didn't want to associate with a boy who professed to be part of a gang? The description distorts events to fit one of our favorite cultural tales of a man who was "done wrong" by a woman.

Where would a boy get the idea that violence is an appropriate response to a perceived injustice? From every man he has seen smack a woman to "keep her in line." From every pop song that has followed the lines of the Beatles ballad "I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to see you with another man." From Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenneger, the "good guys" who blow away those who have done wrong.

When you combine these powerful images with misogyny and guns readily available to troubled and angry boys, we shouldn't be quite so surprised at the consequences.

Yes, the Jonesboro murders were shocking because the perpetrators were so young. But this case is extreme, not aberrant. According to the FBI, 10 women a day are murdered by their boyfriends, husbands, or ex-husbands. The Jonesboro boys are not alone in taking deadly revenge against the females in their lives.

Clinton's effort to find a pattern in the schools where killings have taken place is futile. We need to look for patterns in how we raise our boys.

As a teacher and the mother of middle schoolers, I get to see close-up the pressures "to be a man" that are imposed on our boys. I'm sad for them. And I'm sad for all of us struggling with the consequences.

Kersti Yll, a sociology professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., is a domestic violence researcher. She is the author of "License to Rape" (Free Press, 1985).

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