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Wednesday, April 21, 1999 Published at 18:35 GMT 19:35 UK

World: Americas

Teenage violence: An American malaise?

After the ordeal at Columbine High

The United States has witnessed more mass school shootings than any other nation.

The phenomenon of children shooting their classmates or teachers is viewed as more than a simple availability of guns issue.

There is a fear that massacres like the one in Denver, and the eight comparable incidents over the past 12 months, are the result of a deep malaise in middle-class America.

In the 12 months to 1998, school shootings around the United States killed 14 people and wounded more than 40.

These figures are not all from inner-city schools rife with gang culture - a disturbing amount involved the public schools of small, quiet towns with children shooting other children or teachers.

'I don't like Mondays'

Two decades ago, US schools ceased to be a sanctuary for both pupils and staff when 16-year-old Brenda Spencer shot at classmates and teachers from her bedroom window.

Spencer is still in jail for the two killings and nine woundings she committed in San Diego, with the rifle her father had given her as a gift. She infamously told arresting officers: "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day."

The roll call of institutions affected by such mindless acts of lethal violence in more recent years has included schools in Pearl, Paducah, Jonesboro and Springfield.

[ image: Clinton:
Clinton: "Children should be shown how to express their anger with words"
The paradox is that this spate of school violence has been happening at a time when overall violent crime in the United States has been on the decline.

Colin Moore, a leading New York black defence lawyer, told BBC World Service: "You are beginning to see an epidemic of this type of crime manifesting itself.

"It could very well be that what we have been doing in the United States is solving the crime in the inner city areas, in the predominantly black and Hispanic areas, only to have ignored the whole question of law enforcement in the white suburban areas."

Law enforcement aside, the indiscriminate nature of the recent spate of school killings has shaken America.

There is increasing concern that a sector of American youth has little perception of the consequences of violent actions.

Mr Moore said that these random crimes were much more difficult for society to deal with.

He added: "I think we will see in this society more and more of this middle class type of violence, more and more of these types of acts, as American society begins to understand that crime is not something that is confines to the inner cities or to one racial group but it is a very generalised American phenomenon that society has got to come to grips with."


President Clinton in his address to the nation in response to the incident said that schoolchildren would have to be helped to express their anger with words, not weapons.

Neil Sorokin, a staff psychologist with violent adolescents at Colorado Mental Health Institute in Fort Logan, said violent teenagers often experienced violence in the home.

And he said that signs of an imminent outburst could include a child generally being in trouble at school, and perhaps being in trouble on a small scale with the police.

[ image: Kurt Cobain:
Kurt Cobain: "tragic and heroic"
The key to reducing violent outbursts - whether with guns, fists or knives - is to ensure that all children are made to feel valuable, according to Dr Peter Stringham, adolescent violence prevention counsellor at the Department of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in East Boston.

He told BBC News Online: "Violence is often a problem for people who have some kind of emptiness.

"Teenagers do not have strong egos, so they fill that space with something. There are healthy things to fill it with like academic achievement, sport or altruism.

"There are extremely negative things to fill it with like cults, inappropriate sex, inappropriate behaviour like sex or drugs.

"Problems do occur when we transmit the message to young people that they only have a place in the universe if they are smart, if they are good athletes, if they look a certain way or have a certain sexuality. Young people who do not conform to that ideal will be more likely to experience problems.

'Any moron can get a gun'

"The thing that sets America aside from the rest of the world is that any moron can get a gun. That is an aspect of our society which is very sick."

He added that youngsters did not fully understand that their actions would be forever, and said that teenagers romanticised death - particularly suicide - not really understanding that it is forever.

He said: "Kurt Cobain is such a popular figure because he is seen as tragic and heroic. Teenagers want attention sometimes seek to emulate people like that - sometimes with tragic consequences. In reality they can have little idea of the consequences of their actions.

"What is certain is that young people's problems and feelings of disaffection are going to have to be taken seriously. It is no good looking at the problem after an extreme event such as Denver.

"We have, as a society, to make each individual feel that they have worth."

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