Youth Violence

It was in the morning April 20 and my wife Carrie and I were out of the country enjoying a much needed vacation. As we were checking out of the grocery line I happened to glance at a television monitor displaying a CNN newscast. Suddenly the picture on the screen switched from the crisis in Kosovo to large bold letters that read Breaking News. As I continued to glance at the monitor I noticed the small letters under the caption that read Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado. It had been only nine months since we had left a ministry of 12 years in Littleton and accepted an invitation to join the faculty at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas so we were especially concerned about what was happening back “home.”

The reporters weren’t sure what was happening but they thought there were at least a couple of gunmen. Witnesses reported hearing numerous gunshots and seeing some that were dead and wounded. In the hours that followed we saw anguished parents waiting for hours as police teams sealed off the area, student survivors who were either in tears or trying to look cool, the initial reports of young bodies lying dead in a school library, teenage killers setting off with guns, bombs and booby -traps on a mission of death and destruction.

In the following days we would learn that the high school killers were part of a small group who called themselves “the Trench-Coat Mafia.” Whatever the weather, rain or shine, they wore long black trench coats; they drew swastikas on their clothing, advocated white supremacy, played war games, threatened friends and neighbors with death and destruction and allegedly even made a video they showed in one of their classes of what they wanted to do. Most of their classmates thought they were harmless. It seems like more than coincidence that they picked the day of Hitler’s birthday to prove otherwise.

On April 20th, the time-bomb of hatred, bitterness, resentment and repressed anger exploded at Columbine High School and was heard around the world. Targeting kids they knew to be Christians, targeting the popular athletic “jocks” who had made fun of them and at least one black boy, the two Columbine seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold first went on a well-planned and bloody rampage that left one teacher and 12 fellow students dead, and a score wounded. Then, according to police, they killed themselves.

Were this a single isolated incident it would be shocking and devastating. However, this tragic incident is isolated only by its magnitude. On February 2, 1996, a 14-year-old walked into algebra class at a junior high school in Moses Lake, Washington, killing the teacher and two students. On October 1, 1997 a 16-year-old in Pearl, Mississippi first killed his mother and then went to school and shot nine students, two fatally. On December 1, 1997 a 14-year-old went to his school in West Paducah, Kentucky, killed three students who were praying in a school hallway and wounded five others. On March 24, 1998 two boys in Jonesboro here in our own state of Arkansas, aged 11 and 13-year-old, activated a fire alarm and as their fellow students evacuated the building they went on shooting spree killing four classmates and a teacher. On April 24, 1998 a 14-year-old in Pennsylvania nicknamed “Satan” took his father’s pistol and went to his middle-school prom and killed the teacher who organized it and wounded several others. Last May, in Fayetteville, Tennessee, an 18 year-old student allegedly shot dead a classmate in the school car park. Two days later in Springfield Oregon a 15 year old entered Thurston High School with three guns, killing two teenagers and wounding more than 20. The police later found that his parents had been killed at home.

These stories are staggering and almost unbelievable. However, these incidents in Littleton, Colorado and around our nation are only one of a myriad of indicators that these are difficult and challenging days to be child or an adolescent, or to be the parent of a child or adolescent. In the midst of these challenging times is there anything we as individual parents can do

Yes! Research tells us that something as simple as being more involved in our kid’s lives can make a difference. This past week my three boys joined an estimated 55 million children (not including college students) who started another year of school. This is a great time for those of us who are parents to make a fresh start and re-commit ourselves to meaningful involvement in our children’s lives. What can we do?

1. At least once a week ask each one of your children how things are going in school in their classes and with their friends. Make sure they know that you are willing to help.

2. Make a commitment to maintain a positive attitude when you talk to your child about school. Most kids have some anxiety about returning to school and an understanding and encouraging parent can make a huge difference.

3. Get to know their teachers and let them know of your support for them. Make sure that your first contact with them isn’t over a problem.

4. If you find that they are getting behind in a subject don’t jump all over them. Instead, jump in with then and find out how you can help.

5. Talk with the family about how you can work together to establish an environment and a homework schedule that will work for everyone. Some families keep the TV off until all homework is done.

6. As much as you can, adjust your schedule so you can be a part of their school activities. They may not tell you but it will make a big difference to them.

7. If you are an employer let your employees know that you are committed to strong families and that, as much as possible, you want to be proactive and work with them to help them be a part of their children’s activities.

After over 30 years as a marriage and family specialist I’ve learned to never underestimate the powerful effective that consistent “little” acts of kindness can have on our children. I want to encourage you to give it a try.

Taken with permission from Gary Oliver, Ph.D.

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