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    The Epidemic of Youth Violence

    Excerpted from
    Lost Boys; Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them
    By James Garbarino, Ph.D.

    Youth violence is spreading across America. Until recently, acts of lethal youth violence were mostly confined to certain parts of the United States, most notably the war zone neighborhoods of New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Houston, and other big cities. As a society we have become numb or indifferent to this fact of life. But when young boys in Pearl, Mississippi, Paducah, Kentucky, Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Springfield, Oregon, went on shooting sprees aimed at their classmates in 1998, they made headlines across the country and around the world. These dramatic acts of violence provoked anger and dismay across the United States, in part because while we have grown accustomed to lethal violence among inner-city, impoverished minority youth, we are stunned to see it happen in the heartland of America, where such killings seem particularly senseless. People want to know why this tragedy is happening and what they can do to stop it from happening to their kids or the kids in their community.

    Whether or not your child has an easy temperament and is peaceful and nonviolent, he or she has peers who are angry and sad-and capable of lethal violence. Whether or not you or your neighbor maltreats, rejects, ignores, or abandons children, virtually all parents send their kids to school with children who tire maltreated, rejected, ignored, or abandoned, and who thus are at special risk for becoming violent.

    Tins book is my effort to make sense of senseless youth violence. In writing it I have listened to the words of violent youth themselves and have attempted to make sense of what they have to say through the lens of the latest child development research. But I don't stop there: I go on to use that understanding as the basis for proposing strategies to prevent youth violence, when possible, and to rehabilitate violent teenagers when prevention fails, as it sometimes does no matter how much we invest in efforts to teach nonviolence to our children.

    For more than twenty-five years I have been studying violence and its impact on children and youth in the United States and around the world. I relied on these early years of study to prepare in 1994 for a segment on NBC 's Dateline in which correspondent Stone Phillips and I visited a youth prison in North Carolina to interview three boys serving time for violent crimes. One had shot a cop, another had fatally shot his stepfather, and the third had murdered a friend of his family. Despite my years of studying violence, I left that prison knowing my expertise was incomplete. I realized that I had to learn more about youth violence from the perspective of the kids who kill.

    This desire to know more intensified when I was asked to serve as an expert witness in several youth homicide trials in Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, Washington, New York, and Florida. I realized that neither I nor my colleagues active in this area know enough to do what needs to be done to help kids and protect society.

    In the wake of those trials I teamed up with my colleague Claire Bedard to interview kids who had committed acts of lethal violence and were in jail serving out their sentences or awaiting trial. Claire came from a background in human rights education and international work with street children. She brought a keen insight into how to approach troubled boys in a way that would open up channels of communication. Together we assembled a small team of professionals and students at Cornell University's Family Lite Development Center, a unit of the College of Human Ecology, where I am the co-director and a professor of human development.

    I interviewed each boy one-on-one over a period of weeks to hear him out. This was not the first time these boys had talked to adults about their lives and their crimes, of course; they hail all been interrogated and evaluated numerous times. But virtually every boy said that he had never before told his whole story to anyone.

    I have seen and heard a lot about violence in my work in the last twenty-five years. As a representative of UNICEF, I interviewed Kuwaiti children in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991 and heard about the Iraqi atrocities they witnessed. In the Middle Hast during the late 1980s, I listened to Palestinian kills talk about how the street soldiers in the Intifada threw rocks at Israeli soldiers and how they all had to deal with the rubber bullets and tear gas that came back at them. But the litany of violent experiences I hear from some boys in America still staggers me. They have participated in drug-related kidnappings, both as victim and as perpetrator; they have been the target of drive-by shootings, and they have retaliated with drive-by shootings of their own. Some of them have committed numerous armed robberies. Many of them have scars on their bodies from beatings administered by mothers, fathers, uncles, stepfathers, drug bosses, and neighborhood rivals. Some of them have been beaten up by the police.

    In this book I introduce some of the boys I came to know. I rely upon my knowledge of child and adolescent development as a psychologist to provide a context for their first-person accounts, which come from face-to-face interviews conducted from fall 1996 to fall 1998. I have changed the boys' names and enough details of their stories to protect their identities without altering the meaning and significance of their accounts.

    As a lather and stepfather of boys myself, I was able to recognize both the everydayness of the interviewed boys' self-doubts and concerns (e.g., about popularity and image) and the differentness of the challenges they faced: handling humiliation and rejection at home and at school, earning respect as a drug dealer, encountering lethal violence on every corner, making do without sufficient adult monitoring.

    Sitting behind closed doors week after week with boys who have nowhere to go, I gained a new appreciation for the value and the power of reflection, introspection, reading, and an open heart-on both the part of the boy and the therapist-in the process of human growth and development. I came to understand better than ever before the power of one's story, the value of one's personal narrative in making sense of experience, no matter how dark that experience may have been. And I came to appreciate as never before the critical importance of taking time, of being given time, and of feeling included. In no case did I condone the violent acts committed by the boy sitting before me. But I did come to understand that making sense of a horrible act without judging the person who committed it is possible when you start from a basic respect for the humanness of the perpetrator and refuse to give in to the temptation to demonize him, regardless of what he has done.

    Because I believe that understanding without acting is irresponsible, I want to share some conclusions I have reached about what it will take to make a difference in these young lives, including how schools can do a better job of preventing violent acts and how the youth prison system can provide violent youth with a fir>r opportunity to learn alternative models for living and being. I consider the power of personal and spiritual development to be a vital resource in healing the traumatized child inside the teenager who kills. I search for ways to offer these teens less toxic alternatives to the communities that spawned them. For me, these insights are the key to helping people understand what is happening and what we all can do to stop it, the key to recovering the lost boys and preventing another generation of boys from becoming lost in the first place.

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