Standing together to fight violence


As she glanced at the front page of the paper, my teen-age daughter asked, “These cute kids killed someone?”

Yes, Katie, those cute kids shot four children and a teacher. They wounded several others. Not only did they hide in the woods and cold-bloodedly shoot their classmates and teachers, they planned the attack. They compiled an arsenal of weapons and ammunition, even arranged a getaway car. Yes, Katie, those cute kids were capable of evil.

And they are not the first children to murder at school. And now, after several deadly school shootings in as many months, school violence has become a hot issue. What to do with violent kids? How to predict what threats to take seriously? How do we know when that next gun will be fired? On the heels of this most recent atrocity, President Clinton has asked Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate the problem of school violence. How many more children will die before the study is complete? Do we have enough time to debate the issues? Yet the debate has already begun. Some of us blame a flawed criminal justice system, parental neglect, a culture of irresponsibility. Others blame violent video games and movies, inadequate mental health counseling, the availability of guns. In the interest of preventing future violence, couldn’t we agree to seek common ground — quickly?

Even in my home, debate rages. My husband and older children are appalled Arkansas law is so ill-equipped to punish juveniles. They believe these boys, regardless of their youth, are deserving of adult life sentences — without parole. I don’t know what punishment they deserve, and I seriously question whether the punishment they receive, light or severe, would do anything to affect future violence. Admittedly, I am not sure I’m right. Maybe tough sentences would deter such deeds. But I don’t think so because I don’t believe children capable of such horror think about consequences. Most children, and adults for that matter, don’t refrain from killing other people because they know they’ll face severe punishment if they’re caught. Most people find the idea of killing other human beings morally repugnant. Most are capable of empathy. No matter how angry we become, most of us refrain from killing because we know it is wrong.

So, rather than thinking about the proper punishment for these boys, I am more worried about preventing another shooting. As the mother of four children in public schools, I am deeply concerned about how many violent children with access to weapons are roaming schools corridors across the nation. For my own children’s safety and the safety of their peers, I want someone to figure our quickly which children are dangerous to others. I want someone to identify these children before they hurt anyone, and I want them removed from the school and treated by highly trained psychiatrists and mental health counselors. Their right to an education notwithstanding, children who threaten others with violence should not be mainstreamed in the schools.

I know my 11-year-old isn’t violent. His teachers know that. His peers know that. Children capable of violence behave differently from my son. They threaten others; they consistently exhibit anti-social behavior. The first time such children show signs of violent behavior, I want them separated from children who do not. And I want an offender’s symptoms addressed, not ignored, before he becomes more dangerous. In light of what’s been happening to innocent children, is that too much for a parent to ask? In light of the cost of human lives, could we not justify the expense of hiring counselors and mental health professionals to identify and treat troubled kids early on?

Trying to reassure parents that Westside Middle School will be safe when classes resume, a distraught Karen Curtner, school principal, described the shooting as a “freak accident.” While I can understand her desire to calm fears, I must take exception with her choice of words. What happened at Westside Middle School was no accident. It was calculated. It was executed with precision. These small boys knew what they were doing to their teachers and friends. Until we recognize the horror of that and join forces to do something about it, no school will be truly safe.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.