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Panel Hears Testimony on the Causes Of Violent Acts by Nation's Teenagers

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Washington--Calling violence a "normal" part of life for many adolescents, educators, social scientists, and law-enforcement experts tried to explain to a House panel last week the root causes of last month's assault on a New York City jogger and similar acts of violence by and against youths.

The witnesses told the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families that the climate of violence is especially acute around young black youths, for whom homicide is the leading cause of death.

National attention has been focused on this issue, they said, since a group of young males was charged by New York police in connection with a night-time 'wilding' rampage in Central Park that culminated in the rape and severe beating of a female jogger.

In other cities, the witnesses said, less dramatic, but equally disturbing, violent acts by and against young people are commonplace. Urban drug wars and gang conflicts, they testified, are providing overwhelming evidence that adolescents have become increasingly desensitized by the violence surrounding them.

"Violence is normal in the world of today's adolescent," said Deborah Meier, principal of the Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem, which is located only a few blocks from the site of the assault. "Even worse, it is glamorous and appealing."

Ms. Meier noted that the events in Central Park have hit close to home. One of her pupils has been accused of taking part in the attack, she said, leaving the school community "gripped by sadness and great introspection."

Ms. Meier, who two years ago was awarded $335,000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for her work in the alternative school, said that on one occasion, students told her "how rare it was for them to be able to acknowledge to each other their fears, worries, and doubts."

"To let your guard down was an invitation to danger or cruel jests, at the very least," Ms. Meier continued in her written testimony. "Middle- class kids often see this conforming cruelty as a temporary necessity of adolescence, whereas working-class and poor kids seem more prone to the view that this is the way the world is ... or should be."

"From Rambo to the corporate raiders, it's the aggressive, tough-minded guys who get the job done regardless of laws and the societal constraints," she said. "They're the admirable, effective people, unlike teachers and parents, many of whom seem to struggle and work in circumstances that offer no status, glamor, or money."

According to statistics compiled by committee staff members, teenagers were twice as likely to be the victim of a violent crime as were adults between 1982 and 1984. Between 1982 and 1987, the national rate at which children were reported to be abused or neglected jumped nearly 70 percent, they found. And data supplied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicate that violent crime by juveniles has been increasing since 1983.

Carl C. Bell, a psychiatrist with the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago, told the panel that inner-city teenagers also freqently witness violent crime.

A 1986 survey of 536 elementary-school students in the area surrounding the mental-health center found that 26 percent reported seeing someone shot and 29 percent had seen a stabbing, he said.

A more recent survey of 1,000 local elementary- and high-school students found that 39 percent had seen a shooting, 34 percent had seen a stabbing, and 23 percent had witnessed a murder, he said.

This pattern is also apparent in other cities, he said.

In Detroit, a study of one-half of the murder cases in 1985 revealed that 17 percent were witnessed by children under the age of 18, he said. Another study found that 10 percent of the 2,000 murders committed in Los Angeles County in 1982 were witnessed by dependent children, according to Dr. Bell.

"Clearly, the exposure to violence increases the potential for future violence and hinders emotional and intellectual development of children exposed to violence," he said.

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