As the country sought answers last week to the many “whys” at the heart of the mayhem on a Colorado high school campus, researchers who have studied the rise in youth violence over recent decades gave voice to a puzzling paradox: Even as young Americans face more opportunities for productive lives than ever before, their culture is providing a rich soil for destructive behavior.
Some experts called the homicidal rage exhibited by two teenage gunmen at Jefferson County’s Columbine High School part of an epidemic of violence among boys that has soared since the 1960s and now has spread from society’s most vulnerable--in the inner cities and among minority groups--to infect its most privileged.
“We want to treat these murders as isolated incidents,” said Thomas Armstrong, a psychologist and a former teacher. “But the fact is we are swimming in violence.”
Though the overall youth-homicide rate dropped in 1997, the rate among small-town and rural boys increased by almost 40 percent, writes James Garbarino, a co-director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University, in his just-published book Lost Boys.
Steeped in a popular culture that glorifies violence and too often fending for themselves, adolescent boys of every socioeconomic stripe and from every geographic locale have somehow become killers. And though their numbers still represent only a tiny fraction of the age group, the aggressive scope of their crimes often rivets the attention of an entire nation, as it did last week.
In the aftermath of the Colorado tragedy, some scholars and youth advocates argued that youthful killers also hold a mirror up to society, showing the consequences of rising levels of violent entertainment, growing pressures to succeed, disruptions in family life, and pervasive feelings of powerlessness and isolation.
Despair and Desperation
Differences in the murderous rage of young men in a school library in a comfortable suburb of Denver and those on the mean streets of the ‘hood may be more of degree than of kind, experts said.
Poor youngsters are more likely than children in middle-class families to suffer from child abuse, they noted, and are more likely to have been involved in other criminal acts, to carry a weapon, and to drop out of school--all risk factors for violence.
Those risk factors are not exclusive to poorer neighborhoods, of course. The Columbine High gunmen had been in a juvenile-diversion program for minor criminal offenders, and both apparently were fascinated with weapons.
More important, the underlying emotions--feelings of rejection and anger-- are often much the same for violent young men regardless of their backgrounds. And behind a wall of feigned indifference and apparent withdrawal, those feelings grow so strong that eventually such youths may feel immune even to punishment.
“They are saying, ‘I’m not afraid to go to prison, prison couldn’t be worse than what I’m going through,’ ” said Dewey G. Cornell, who directs the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
In locales where killings are commonplace, many boys have scant expectation of growing up. But even in less-desperate suburban or rural settings, where killings are rare, explosively violent youths still feel a sense of desperation. They commit atrocious crimes to show how much they hurt, said Mr. Cornell and others, because the American model of manhood discourages the direct expression of such feelings. Making someone else the victim may be an attempt to deflect the hurt inflicted by a distant father or by seemingly powerful peers.
Many violent boys are not only angry but depressed, Mr. Cornell added. Thinking already distorted by anger is further twisted by relentless feelings of despair and worthlessness.
That the rage of middle-class teenagers has exploded not on city streets but inside their suburban high schools comes as no surprise to experts. That is where so much of what’s important to these youngsters takes place, they said. And in high schools, the grievances often focus on the cliques and divisions that seem endemic to life there.
Seeing themselves as outsiders, these troubled teenage boys seek out others on the periphery, fueling each other’s resentment and, as in the case of Eric D. Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School, cobbling together an identity from countercultural ideas and fads.
The two Colorado teenagers are said to have dabbled in the “Gothic” style popular among some disaffected students--black clothes, a fascination with dark urges and corruption, especially as depicted in the Middle Ages--and to have drawn inspiration from the Nazi movement. The content probably was less important than the anti-social messages, said experts on such alienation.
Yet these messages apparently went unread or at least unchallenged by adults in authority. News accounts suggest that school athletes jeered, however, and that other students gave the two a wide berth. Even that wasn’t enough to keep Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold from engaging in provocative behavior, such as executing mock military drills in the school’s hallways.
During their rampage, the teenage gunmen reportedly shot athletes with particular glee.
Many scholars expressed worry that high schools are too often impersonal places where cliques provide students with their only real connections, and where teenagers are unlikely to trust adults with important information. Part of the problem is thought to be size--both the size of the school and the number of students each teacher sees.
“I don’t feel like teachers are really involved in our personal lives; they see so many kids,” Kaitlan Monroe, a senior at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Wash., said last week. “I don’t think any of my teachers would know if I was depressed or angry.”
The Spokane school’s senior class president, Valentina Garcia-Loste, recalled the pervasive ridicule in her middle school, which in high school gave way to a settled hierarchy with football players at the top. " Athletes get more recognition and privileges; I can see the unfairness of the system,” she said.
Experts have argued, too, that public high schools often provide little to counter the cruelty or superficial values of a teenage culture that itself reflects troubling influences from the broader society. In many schools, " tolerance” has become a cover for dealing as little with bad behavior as is consistent with maintaining order, according to some educators.
“Dignity-stealing behavior is tolerated daily in schools,” said C. Stephen Wallis, an administrator at a public high school between Baltimore and Washington, who has written on the subject. “We don’t take kids seriously enough, and that has contributed to a breakdown of civilized behavior.”
In an ideal school, said Gerald P. Grant, a professor of education at Syracuse University in New York who has studied the ethos of high schools for years, there would be opportunities to talk together about moral qualities.
“There will always be cruelty,” Mr. Grant said last week, “but I want my child in a school where cruelty doesn’t go unnoticed, and where adult disapproval is exercised in the right way and at the right time, and where virtue is rewarded.”
Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an expert in conflict resolution who teaches at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., agrees that, in the end, violence of spirit and of deed tends to be bred in schools that don’t cultivate the characteristics of a community.
“In a school, we want widespread knowledge of what’s happened, ongoing communication among different subgroups and subcultures, and forms of democratic decisionmaking where kids feel genuinely empowered to affect their environment,” she said.
Guns and Video
Whatever the failings of schools, many researchers stress that the crucial element in the climb of the youth murder rate over the past 30 years has been access to guns and the media’s tacit encouragement of violence.
“In high schools, there have always been in-groups, out-groups and cliques; what has changed is access to weapons, and information on the Internet, and the encouragement children receive from music videos, computer games, TV, and movies to engage in violent behavior,” said Mr. Cornell of the University of Virginia.
Americans have been reluctant to abridge rights to gun ownership and free speech and are doubtful that changes in these areas would make a difference. Media companies, some of the world’s largest commercial enterprises, have fought governmental interference in their activities both on First Amendment grounds and in the name of free enterprise. Such companies have pointed to the enormous marketplace popularity of the entertainment that some people have sought to ban.
But media-education advocates and other educators maintain that much of the reason high schools--and parents--need conscious, well-planned efforts to foster human connections and promote nonviolent ways of resolving conflict can be seen in the countervailing influence of television, films, music videos, video games, and toys: As entertainment, they glorify violence. As education, they teach it.
“Teachers have been telling us for years, ever since popular culture has become a dominant force in children’s lives, that they see more mean- spirited behavior, short fuses, and aggression,” noted Ms. Carlsson-Paige.
“The federal government has established for almost 30 years that there’s a modeling effect” from violent movies and television, said Robert W. Kubey, a professor of communication at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Media productions full of violence don’t, by themselves, send an individual on a rampage, Mr. Kubey said, but in a certain tiny percentage of people, they reinforce the notion that killing is justified and spawn imitation. Many other people lose some of their sensitivity to violence or become more fearful.
Other experts point to violent video games as an even more pernicious influence than these passive media formats. Lt. Col. David Grossman, a psychologist who recently retired from the U.S. Army, sees some video games as the equivalent of the military’s training given to increase the rate at which soldiers shoot to kill in battle. The idea of such training, he said, is to make killing a reflex, a reflex that could kick in with rage and a gun.
Whether related to his killing spree at Columbine High School or not, Eric Harris was said to be a master of the shoot-'em-up computer game Doom--so proficient, in fact, that he invented variations available on his World Wide Web site.
Researchers repeatedly caution against simple explanations for youth murder. But many have sounded an alarm about the potentially lethal mix of a coarsened American culture, weapons, and psychological pain.
“These [violent] boys fall victim to an unfortunate synchronicity between their own internal world and the corrupting influences of American culture,” writes Mr. Garbarino in Lost Boys. “These factors affect us all to some degree, but they poison these especially vulnerable kids.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 edition of Education Week