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Shots in the Dark 

Filmmakers, educators, politicians stand up to campus violence

Wednesday, Aug 11 1999
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Amy Vangsgard

Kids dead in school shootings: Stockton (5) + Brooklyn (1) + Reseda (1) + Fairfax (1) + Moses Lake (3) + Jonesboro (5) + Columbine (15). Thirteen kids die from gunfire each day in the U.S., more than 4,700 a year. Who’s gonna stop the killing?

What happens when kids from different ethnic and racial backgrounds are fenced in on a school campus and don’t know anything about one another? According to reports, they hate each other. Such is the case in L.A., where, over the past dozen years, the student population has seen major changes: rising numbers of Latinos (nearly 70 percent of the student body) and declining numbers of whites (11 percent) and African-Americans (14 percent). The Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations released a report four months ago documenting an alarming increase in campus hate crimes. The 15 percent jump last year — with two out of three cases racially motivated — is a source of strong concern because the number of unreported hate crimes is much higher, District Attorney Gil Garcetti explains. Though attitudes toward reporting violent incidents might change, owing to increased sensitivity to what happened in Littleton, Colorado, the question that remains is what must be done to prevent kids from shooting each other.

After Littleton, everyone looked toward Hollywood and blamed it for the violence. In June, leading screenwriters clashed over how much responsibility Hollywood should take for the possible effects that movie violence has on society, especially on children. The two-day conference in Santa Monica, scheduled long before the launch of President Bill Clinton’s violence inquiry, was titled "Guns Don’t Kill People . . . Writers Do" and included Brian Helgeland, Steven De Souza, and the Oscar-winning writer of Thelma & Louise, Callie Khouri. They agreed that Hollywood movies, among other influences such as video games and the National Rifle Association, play a role in creating a picture of society that is increasingly violent and cruel. The issues, however, are more complicated, Khouri explained, stressing that "13- or 14-year-old boys are being marketed to because they are the biggest consumers of films . . . and what we are seeing are the results of an unregulated free-market system."

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A political matter, regulation is controversial, especially among conservatives. And yet, shocked by those recent school shootings, many Angelenos have expressed their concerns about the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the right to bear arms. "Our citizenry, including our children, has easy access to guns. Until we abolish the 2nd Amendment, this carnage will continue," a reader of the Los Angeles Times wrote. Progress is being made, with California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer both committed to gun-law enforcement and proposing legislation prohibiting the use and manufacture of certain types of weapons.

A survey of 1,800 students at L.A.-area high schools, compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in 1997, revealed common reasons why teenagers have biases. Kids don’t know enough about people from other places and are not able to handle their anger in appropriate ways. But nearly 40 percent of students believed conflict-resolution training would reduce campus violence. Some 46 percent said cultural-sensitivity classes would help.

With this in mind, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) set up a 20-week course called "Life Skills for the 21st Century," to be implemented in the curriculum next June. It’s designed to have children learn and internalize ethics, values and attitudes. "We want students to look at their world differently, to become a part of [this world], rather than be an outsider, regardless of the cultural differences and backgrounds," says Suzanne Blake, LAUSD teacher adviser and Life Skills’ project director.

During the class, students will learn to describe their thoughts and problems, fears and angers, so that they eventually come to understand that hatred and violence are not solutions. Trained teachers will act as facilitators in classroom discussions, asking students to come up with opinions and resolve arguments peacefully. "When kids start to talk about issues like alcohol and drug abuse or sexual harassment, we tend to open up their feelings and emotions, and counseling is needed to help them. We talk through things," Blake points out.

Right now, Life Skills, an outcome of the shootings at L.A.’s Figueroa Elementary School three years ago, is in the pilot phase. After evaluation, the course will be revised and made mandatory for every ninth-grade high school student in the LAUSD. It is not the only course for the school district’s 700,000 kids that touches on topics involving violence, but it will be the first class to be uniform — every high school freshman will have to take and pass it to graduate.

The LAUSD, though, is not the first district in L.A. to run a program addressing juveniles and their problems. The Alhambra School District tries to improve communication skills as an approach to violence, both on campus and off campus. Peer Resources is one of the oldest and most comprehensive students-help-students programs in the country. It was introduced by Michael Donnelly, assistant principal at San Gabriel High â School and president of the California Association of Peer Programs, in 1981, because "adolescents [would] rather talk to another kid than to an adult." The idea is that students help each other by listening to their fellows’ problems, ranging from abuse and suicide to gangs and domestic violence. Says Donnelly: "The peer counselors are obliged to keep information from conversations confidential and to not give advice. They listen."

Support and financial aid come from Sacramento. On June 30 this year, AB 1113 was approved, a law that establishes the School Violence Prevention and Response Task Force and provides $100 million for school safety — money that could be spent on metal detectors, since only 4 percent of schools have them in place. Surprisingly, the bill passed just a few months after it was introduced. Furthermore, Assemblyman Kevin Shelley of San Francisco proposed Assembly Bill 1031, designed to give annual funds of $30 million to California youth-to-youth peer programs. Although AB 1031 was introduced the very same day as the school-safety bill, it’s still in process and being amended. The entire Republican Caucus has voted against the Shelley proposal in several readings, but with the votes of the Dem-ocrats it is expected to pass this fall.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, say experts, noting that children’s behavior is mostly influenced by what happens in the home. That’s why parents have "to talk to [their] own children about what happens when [kids] are not connected to each other, to society," says pediatrician William Sears. "We need to talk to our children about caring for one another, about why we don’t join bad groups or carry guns." But with more and more single-parent households and broken families, moms and dads often don’t have time for this. They don’t know whatgoing on, and "that’s exactly what happened in Littleton," the LAUSD’s Blake points out.

Schools can do a lot, especially with programs for young kids. But when kids reach middle school age, it becomes almost impossible to change their attitudes or behavior because, say experts, they’ve grown beyond the point at which they can be easily taught and will accept advice. By then, teenagers have built up their own personalities and might already be in trouble, having committed a crime, which is why school courses like Life Skills, which focus on high school students, come far too late. They are about managing a crisis, not about preventing one.

Tinseltown has helped shape the culture of violence. What happens when children take the wrong way is portrayed in Tony Kaye’s 1998 drama American History X, in which a neo-Nazi is arrested after killing two African-Americans. In jail he comes to know a black man intimately, and realizes that all his hatred and anger is an outcome of lacking knowledge. However, there’s no hope for his younger brother, Danny, who has grown up celebrating Hitler and racial purity. A black student shoots him in a campus bathroom. Hollywood reflects and projects. So, who’s gonna stop the killing?

 

 

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