Tragedies renew focus on helping teens

Lessons learned from events such as Tuesday's school shooting could also be applied to younger children.

A teenager in New York walks into a high school and seriously wounds two other students.

Five high schoolers characterized as "the outcasts of the outcasts" in a quiet New Jersey suburb allegedly beat and sexually assault a 13-year-old girl.

And in Florida, a 15-year-old boy steals a plane and kills himself by ramming into a skyscraper.

These events, all from the past two weeks, are obviously dramatically distinct from the lives of millions of American teens. But more than one expert in adolescence calls such incidents the "tip of the iceberg."

Below the surface, these experts also see a larger issue to be addressed: a disconnect between adolescents and adults in contemporary culture. But they signal hope that this emotional fissure can be bridged - by gleaning lessons from each tragic incident and by applying them not only to adolescents, but also to children in elementary school. It will take political will in the form of increased financial support for schools, as well as cooperation between schools, community groups, police, and families.

"I'm with Dickens: 'It's the best of times and the worst of times,' " says William Pollack, an expert on adolescents and school shootings at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. It's the worst, he says, because while such heinous events are rare, they're also increasing. There's also what he calls a growing sense of "incivility, disconnection, and hurtfulness" in American schools.

On the other hand, "The best of times is that as we see more of these horrible events, more people are starting to say we have to look at our society and our culture and start making changes in schools and create support systems for kids so their lives don't have to go that way," he says.

The school shootings in the mid-1990s sent out the first major distress signals. Teachers, school psychologists, experts in adolescent behavior, and federal officials began an intensive study of the potential causes of such adolescent rage, even before the horror at Columbine in 1999.

One of the researchers is Kevin Dwyer, of the American Institute for Research, a think tank in Washington. After the shooting in Jonesboro, Ark., in 1998, he worked with the FBI and put out a pamphlet to help identify kids who may need extra attention. More than a million copies were distributed to schools around the country.

In the months before Columbine, Mr. Dwyer even gave a talk on safe schools to all the school boards in Colorado. "It's very painful for me. I guess I didn't really hit the mark," he says.

Still, Mr. Dwyer says things have improved, and he rattles off the names of a handful of school systems - Westerly, R.I., LaFourche Parish in Louisiana, and Cherry Creek, Colo., among others - that are taking early warning signs seriously and successfully intervening with troubled kids.

He calls them "islands of hope in a sea of despair." Simply put, they have adults there for kids to talk to when they're stressed.

"The surgeon general says 21 percent of adolescents have diagnosable mental health disorders," he says. "Only about 1 in 5 of them get any kind of treatment."

The warning signs and risk factors that can lead to trouble appear on the surface to be fairly obvious: sudden changes in a child's personality, depression, substance abuse, social isolation, academic failure, aggressive acting out, and other types of disruptive behavior.

"But many people who are vouchsafed with the safety of boys still don't know the warning signs," says Dr. Pollack. "For instance, a child who acts out with bravado and negativity, may in fact be signaling he's more sad and more disconnected."

In reality, there is also no single criterion, no magic red flag that can be used to predict trouble. And childhood is by nature a time of changing behaviors and experimentation.

That's exacerbated in adolescence, when the stress of an external event - say, a move from one school to another, or a divorce in the family - can set off trouble. But the vast majority of kids in those situations end up working through difficult periods and healing on their own, according to Laurence Steinberg of Temple University in Philadelphia.

"But one of the things that we are sure of is that the more risk factors that are present, the greater the chances are the child is going to have problems," he says.

Some psychologists suggest reaching out to help in elementary school, instead of waiting until high school.

"Experts say they can predict with 75 percent accuracy by third grade those students who are going to have problems and are going to drop out of school or be involved in negative adolescent behaviors," says Linda Bakken, an educational psychologist at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan.

To counter such outcomes, Colvin Elementary School in Wichita decided five years ago that it had to be "relentless" in ensuring every student was successful. They changed their whole curriculum, lengthened the school day, brought in a full-time psychologist, and got the community and local police involved in the everyday running of the school. If any child starts acting out negatively, the school, with community supports, reaches out to that child and their family.

"Whatever it takes, that's what we do to make sure our children are successful," says Principal GwenCarol Holmes.

The result has been significant increases in academic scores, and also significant improvements in behavior. In 1997, 113 children were suspended. Last year, just 13 kids were sent home as a punishment.

"There is a ray of hope. Each time something like this happens, we learn more and more. And places that put that into action have gotten positive results," says Pollack. "I think people will grasp onto this if they realize that it's the most important thing we can do."

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