We’re still looking for the easy answers

By Anne Hendershott
Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of San Diego.
Anne Hendershott teaches the “Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Gangs” course at the university and writes about youth alienation.

In the wake of the Columbine tragedy, we continue to look for easy answers to ending youth violence.

Last month, the Senate passed the regressive Violent and Repeat Juvenile Accountability and Rehabilitation Act as one of those easy answers. Accompanying the gun provisions, this bill imposes mandatory minimum sentences on 14-year old offenders and repeals states’ obligation to review the continued inequality in incarceration rates for minority youth. Despite opposition by the Congressional Black Caucus, Democrats overwhelmingly supported the bill — all in the name of gun control.

Too often we look for the easy answers to the problems of our youth. When teen-age suicide rates tripled in the 1980s, heavy metal music was blamed. By the late ’80s, suicide was second only to accidents as the leading cause of death for America’s teen-agers.

Teen-age suicide clusters appeared across the country in much the same pattern as today’s school shooting clusters. There were nine youth suicides in the mid-’80s in the corporate enclave of Plano, Texas. Upscale Westchester County experienced clusters of six youth suicides in 1984, five more in 1985, and an additional seven in 1986. In 1986, four teens killed themselves together in a suicide pact in suburban Bergenfield, N.J. Sociologists documented the demographics of the clusters — middle-class white alienated youth living in suburban neighborhoods. Does this sound familiar?

Public health officials warned about the “epidemic” of teen suicide, and media watchdogs blamed the “demonic” influence of the heavy metal music of the times. ABC’s “20/20” presented a feature on the link between heavy metal music and teen-age suicide. Indicted in the suicides were Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, and of course, Metallica’s ode to suicide, “Fade to Black.”

Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center attacked the music industry. The heavy metal music choice of some of the suicide victims was “evidence” of the cause. “Proof” was provided by the fact that one suburban teen in Alsip, Ill., had written down the lyrics to “Fade to Black” before taking her life.

In the ’90s we continue to look for the easy answers. Metallers have been replaced by a new group of suburban youth inspired by goth and hip hop. Marilyn Manson has become the new scapegoat. But, there has been a decline in teen suicide. Is it because we have learned to help teens work through their depression? Hardly — we have even fewer resources today.

What is different in the ’90s is that troubled suburban youth have now learned to blame others instead of themselves for their despair. Raging against a society that has ignored them has inspired cluster homicides instead of cluster suicides. Parents and schools have abdicated their responsibility to these teens. In their absence, a psychiatric empire has been created to provide easy answers through medication.

A host of psychiatric drugs — Paxil, Ritalin, Prozac and Zoloft — provided the easy solution to teen suicide. In the absence of parents and teachers who care, today’s suburban teens can pharmaceutically control their feelings. But, at what price? Teen suicides may have declined, but, it seems that these medications have helped some teens externalize their depression, erupting in rage.

A few years ago, an Escondido teen-ager on Paxil stabbed his step-grandmother over 50 times. A year later, a medicated young man in Vista brutally stabbed his parents, his grandparents and his little sister. He set fire to the house and drove away in the family’s Mercedes. Columbine shooter Eric Harris had been on similar medication.

Of course, blaming the medication for the violence is as wrong as blaming the guns, the music or the violent video games and movies. It is not what teens hear in their music or see in the movies or video games that causes the rage. It is not the access to guns that causes their anger. Instead, it is teens’ inability to handle their feelings of abandonment that causes the rage. Lacking parent and community supports, they have no one to turn to at the end of a bad day. And there are always bad days for teen-agers.

Many of the suicides of the ’80s and the recent school shooters were “new kids” — kids who moved to a new school or arrived in a less than welcoming community. It is not coincidental that so many of the suicides of the ’80s and the suburban violence of the ’90s have occurred in highly mobile communities like Plano, Texas, and Littleton, Colo. Sociologists have warned for decades about the anomie that accompanies social and geographical mobility. Without a welcoming community, alienation is inevitable.

Moving to a new school is always difficult, and when there is no one to help ease the passage, it can be traumatic. Eric Harris never adjusted after his move. Nor did Barry Loukaitis, the earliest school shooter in 1996. Upset about being picked on since his recent move to Moses Lake, Washington, Loukaitis donned the black trench coat, the uniform of school shooters, to kill his classmates and his algebra teacher.

Looking for easy answers as a substitute for parental involvement and school support is wrong. The Draconian juvenile justice bill that both liberals and conservatives in the Senate voted for on May 20 will do nothing to address the abandonment and alienation that teen-agers feel. Until we are willing to acknowledge community complicity in the increasing youth violence, we are doomed to continue it.

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