On March 5, the bodies of five teenagers arrived for autopsy at the San Diego County Medical Examiner‘s Office. Two were victims of student gunman Charles Andrew Williams at Santana High School in Santee. The other three died in more typical ways that teenagers die: Two were killed in automobile accidents; the other has not yet been officially classified, but she was a 14-year-old who’d been depressed. Authorities are investigating the possibility of suicide.
In 1998, the most recent year for which statistics are available, more than 13,000 kids between 15 and 24 died in automobile accidents. Another 4,000 killed themselves. Only a handful died in school shooting sprees. As the congressional Bipartisan Working Group on Youth Violence reported in February 2000, “It is important to note that, statistically speaking, schools are among the safest places for children to be.” During the 1998-99 school year, even with Columbine High School‘s toll of 12, violent, school-related deaths totaled 30. Last year, that number was just 16. In an average year, nearly a hundred people are killed by lightning.
While it’s easy to see the absurdity of re-shaping public policy to prevent anomalies like lightning strikes, legislators have not hesitated to drastically alter public policy toward teenagers in the wake of far rarer incidents of school violence. “Authorities seem to lie in wait for suburban youth killings, months and thousands of miles apart, to validate a false hypothesis of generational disease,” wrote Mike Males, senior researcher for the Justice Policy Institute and author of Framing Youth. Ignoring in their legislative agendas things that might prevent the very real threats to teenagers of auto accidents and suicide, and ignoring the fact that teenagers are getting less, not more, violent, legislators have passed a raft of punitive and ineffectual laws clamping down ever more tightly on youth. “They can‘t seem to do anything that would really help,” Males says. “They can’t fix the fact that one-third of kids in Los Angeles County are growing up in poverty. They can‘t fix family violence. So they decide to do something, even if it’s stupid.”
In the aftermath of Santee, proposals for new laws are already surfacing and even passing. In Sacramento, Assemblyman George Runner Jr. (R-Lancaster) says he will introduce a bill to provide legal protection to students who report school-violence threats. Locally, county Supervisor Mike Antonovich is leading the charge. Last week, he introduced a motion (passed unanimously) setting up a program in which youths convicted of making threats would tour the county morgue “to see the results of gun violence.” Kim Brooks, executive director of the Children‘s Law Center in Covington, Kentucky, sees the law, which has received worldwide attention, as grandstanding. “There have been so many overreactions to school-shooting incidents,” she says. “But this is one of the most absurd.” Such “scared straight” programs have been shown in numerous studies not to work. “I can’t believe that the Columbine kids, say, would have been the least deterred by this kind of program,” says Males. Moreover, they may do more harm than good. “I would have extreme concerns about exposing children to morgues and the kind of psychological damage that could cause,” Brooks says.
The last decade has brought a surge in laws that punish kids in ways large and small. Cities have passed ever-more-draconian curfew laws to keep kids off the streets not just at night but during the day. States, including California, have passed laws mandating that children committing certain crimes be tried and punished as adults. An increasing number of schools require kids to wear uniforms. States across the country are raising the driver‘s-license age.
Among the more odious tools for cracking down on kids are the zero-tolerance policies now in wide use at schools across the country. In the mid-’90s, after the first couple of widely publicized school shootings, many states adopted policies mandating automatic suspension in certain circumstances, usually for criminal offenses or serious threats to the safety of other students. Since that time, however, school districts have expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a broad swath of behavior. Depending on the school, kids can be automatically suspended for making threats, tagging, possessing drugs or alcohol, being under the influence of alcohol at school functions and carrying weapons.
While the laws have not demonstrably prevented a single school shooting, they have resulted in legions of children being removed from school for minor offenses. Students sharing drugs such as Midol and aspirin have been suspended, as have kids carrying such dangerous “weapons” as paper clips, nail files and scissors. And the policies have put school authorities in an awkwardly hypocritical position: At the same time they‘re trying to teach kids to be tolerant of others, they’re proudly touting “zero tolerance” by the school for the smallest slip-ups.
Some of the zero-tolerance suspensions are simply ludicrous, like that of Jonesboro, Arkansas, first-grader Christopher Kissinger, who was kept out of school for three days earlier this year for pointing a breaded chicken nugget at a teacher in the school lunchroom and saying, “Pow, pow, pow.”
Other cases have had more disturbing consequences, like that of Dana Heitner, a straight-A student and Eagle Scout who, during his senior year of high school in a Cincinnati suburb, was suspended in connection with a school-election poster parodying the movie Speed that he put up in the boys‘ restroom. The poster said that a bomb had been placed in the toilet and that the only way to prevent its explosion was to “. . . scream as loud as you can that you will vote for [a candidate for school president] in the coming election . . .”
The principal perceived the clearly satiric poster as threatening, and because the school district had in place a zero-tolerance policy that mandated automatic suspension for making threats, Heitner was suspended from high school for two weeks, weeks that happened to correspond with some important exams for the first quarter of the year. As a consequence, his quarter grades — the last sent off to many of the colleges he was applying to — included a D in calculus, which, since he planned to major in engineering, was highly problematic. By the end of the semester, Heitner had pulled his grades back up and still managed to graduate last spring as valedictorian. But he was not accepted at UC Berkeley, his first-choice school. Now a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, Heitner has put the incident behind him. But he questions the wisdom of zero tolerance. “These policies are much more about protecting the school administration from legal problems than they are about protecting students,” he says. “They hurt students.”
If the get-tough mindset has created problems for elite students like Heitner, it has been even harder on those not at the top either academically or socioeconomically. Last year, Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, in conjunction with the Advancement Project, took a hard look at zero tolerance, concluding in their report “Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Policies” that the results of zero tolerance, in many cases, “defy common sense,” and that “children in kindergarten through 12th grade receive harsh punishments, often for minor infractions that pose no threat to safety.” Furthermore, the report noted, “African-American, Latino and disabled children bear the brunt of the consequences of these policies.”
Although statistics over time are sketchy and unreliable, it would appear that in the years since zero-tolerance policies took effect, school suspensions have risen dramatically. And nonwhite students are suspended at far greater rates. Data from the U.S. Department of Education cited in the “Opportunities Suspended” document concluded “that while African-American children only represent 17% of public school enrollment nationally, they constitute 32% of out-of-school suspensions.” During the school year 1997-98, according to the Department of Education, one in eight black students was suspended, while only one in 30 white students was suspended. Moreover, one-third of all students permanently expelled from school were black.
The country‘s recent harsh crackdown on teenagers might be understandable if it had come in response to a real threat. But in fact, juvenile-crime rates have dropped dramatically in the last 10 years. In most ways that can be measured, teenagers are doing extremely well. As a group, they’re smoking less and drinking less. They‘re volunteering more. They have higher IQs. They’re more accepting of gender and ethnic differences. They have the lowest teen-birth rate of the last 60 years. They‘re better educated. “This is a great bunch of kids,” says William Strauss, co-author of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. “They’re working much harder. They‘re smarter. They’re out volunteering in the community. It‘s important that we understand that.”
So why don’t we seem to? In part, it‘s that media portrayals of teens have focused disproportionately on crime, leaving a majority of people believing — falsely — that kids are responsible for the bulk of crimes committed. Teenagers are constantly portrayed by the media as being in crisis. “Our perceptions of kids are saturated with misconceptions perpetuated by the media,” says Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute. “And this is the climate in which we’re making policy.”
Strauss believes the get-tough mentality can be traced directly to how baby boomers were raised. “The boomers were born when the world was reeling from the deeds of Hitler and Stalin. There was a conscious effort to raise idealistic children who‘d resist authority and reject totalitarianism,” he says. “Now there’s a feeling on the part of that generation that we‘ve gone too far and need to get back to traditional virtues like honor and duty.”
Still, the gap between what kids are really like and how we are treating them is disturbing. “I feel sorry for today’s kids,” says Schiraldi. “They‘re so much better behaved, but they don’t get any chance to mess up even in the most normal ways.”
Sue Horton, former editor of the Weekly, is currently on a University of Maryland fellowship looking at perceptions vs. reality of the American teenager.