COVER

TEENS UNDER SIEGE

How kids can go wrong—and what parents can do

PATRICIA CHISHOLM May 3 1999
COVER

TEENS UNDER SIEGE

How kids can go wrong—and what parents can do

PATRICIA CHISHOLM May 3 1999

TEENS UNDER SIEGE

How kids can go wrong—and what parents can do

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

The lunchtime scene at Leaside High School in central Toronto is reassuringly innocuous: a hundred or so giggling, gossiping teenagers seated along rows of yellow tables. The jocks, about a dozen well-built, self-confident guys who straddle their chairs, are the only obvious clique. Some kids are playing cards, others are doing their homework. A few of the girls are talking about the semi-formal dance scheduled for that evening. The kids here know about last week’s horrendous massacre at a school not unlike theirs in Littleton, Colo., and it’s something they can’t help thinking about. ‘You know, we have cliques in our school too,” says Miranda, 15. “There are the people who dress in strange clothing.

Some who smoke, and do drugs or have sex. We kind of put that down. But mostly we just ignore them.”

Leaside, located in a leafy, middle-class Toronto neighbourhood, could be almost any high school in any affluent North American community, including Littleton’s Columbine High School. Most kids, at most of these schools, are worried about their social life, their hair and their grades in roughly that order. The very few who might be violent seem on the fringe, worthy of only occasional concern. But the rampage at Columbine may have altered all that. While a shooting spree in which two boys laugh as they mow down 13 people, then kill themselves, is clearly a rare

event, the seething adolescent rage that fuelled it is all too common. Part of the problem, some social scientists say, is that being a teenager has never been tougher. North American culture is on fast-forward, forcing children as young as 11 and 12 to grapple with real-life sex, blood-soaked movies, and the Internet’s interactive free-for-all, where advocacy of violence, hatred and pornography flourishes virtually unchecked: the Littleton teenagers evidently learned how to make their shrapnel-loaded pipe bombs from the Web.

Parents, teachers and other counsellors may also have to share some of the blame. Too often, experts say, children have virtually no adult guidance when it comes to confronting the underside of mass culture. Adults frequently shy away from investigating teenage subgroups, hoping that a fascination with death or anarchy or Hitler (all three apparently obsessed the Colorado teens) is merely a “phase.” At the same time, the traditional buffers of extended family, religion and community have atrophied, forcing many kids to rely on each other for support. Add firearms to this unsavory brew and the explosive results start to look almost predictable. “If you get a lessening of ties to conventional supports, those ties have to go somewhere,” says the University of Western Ontario’s Alan Leschied, a leading Canadian researcher on teen violence and head of a project in

London, Ont, that counsels young offenders. “One of the big things with all adolescents is that, in terms of identifying with the culture, they try on different things. These kids just tried on a very damaging identity.”

On the surface, the Colorado teens hardly seemed threatening. Although they favoured long black trenchcoats, a uniform borrowed from the Goth music subculture, Goth (from Gothic) is not known for violence or aggression but only for a morbid fascination with death, dark clothing and funereal makeup—white faces, black lips. One of the killers, Eric Harris, 18, actually preferred “industrial music,” which glorifies anti-authoritarian behaviour. Other students have described him and the other killer, Dylan Klebold 17, as “losers” but most of what was chilling about them was not readily obvious: Harris wrote he wanted to kill everyone in Denver on an obscure Web site he maintained, and the pair made a video several months before the shootings depicting themselves in their long back trenchcoats, gunning down students as they ran through the school hallways.

Natural Born Killers, a 1994 film by Oliver Stone about two young murderers utterly devoid of remorse, was one of Harris’s favourite films.

One of the keys to understanding their bizarre slide into nihilism, some have suggested, may be their very limited social contacts and range of activities: Harris and Klebold apparently filled that social and emotional vacuum by focusing their resentment and rage on powerful images of violence and anarchy. “What happens with extremely alienated kids,” explains Stephen Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta who specializes in alternative belief systems, “is that they will most likely obtain their values from the primary deviant subgroup. They spend increasingly large amounts of time with one another, to the exclusion of contact with a larger society.”

Trouble starts when the values of the subculture are profoundly antisocial, Kent adds. If it encourages its members to dismiss the pain of others—for instance, by playing violent computer games over and over, repeatedly viewing violent videos or torturing animals—its members come to believe that pain “is not a big thing,” Kent says. They then feel free to vent their anger on the object of their hatred: the successful jocks who taunted or dismissed them, the popular girls who wouldn’t date them, or racial minorities. Harris and Klebold, says Kent, “probably felt a tremendous sense of power, in the context of their peers, for the first time in their lives. They were sadistically vicious in having their peers beg for mercy. To need

that kind of rush indicates the extraordinary rage they had.”

Ready access to guns was also a vital part of the equation, a situation that is much more common in the United States than in Canada. But while the last time a high-schoolage student went on a shooting spree in Canada occurred in Ottawa in October, 1975 (and in Brampton, Ont., five months earlier), the weapons contained in up to a quarter of Canada’s households still pose another danger: the tragedy of teen suicide. Fully 85 per cent of Canadian males aged 15 to 19 who are killed by guns turned the weapons on themselves. Dr. Katherine Leonard, aToronto specialist in adolescent medicine, is now drafting guidelines for pediatricians recommending that they urge the parents of depressed teenagers, particularly boys, to get guns out of their homes. “Teenagers who don’t have a firearm available are less likely to kill themselves,” she says. “You might think, ‘Oh, they’ll just jump off a bridge or something.’ That’s simply not the case.”

For those faced with the daunting task of trying to anticipate which kids are at risk, Gregory Fouts, a child psychologist at the University of Calgary, has some suggestions. The signs of a major breakdown may not be overt, he warns. Most teenagers want to be seen as in control, and they work hard at masking their feelings. Parents should ask themselves whether it is possible to have a warm, supportive conversation with their child about tilings the child thinks are important. Is there evidence of bullying? Kids who feel rejected may start to reject others in the same way, by taunting or namecalling, for instance. Is the child constantly trying to distract himself from his inner trauma with high-excitement activities, such as computer games? Is he only interested in media—movies, TV, Web sites— that feature violence? Often, Fouts notes, it is those who are most likely to be aware of the warning signs—friends and family members—who are least likely to mention a problem, either because of embarrassment or simply because they are unaware of what they are seeing. “It’s up to the parents and the school to pay attention when it looks like a teenager is beginning to go off the track,” Fouts says.

Of course, wading through the morass of adolescence can be indescribably difficult. As both Fouts and Leschied point out, it takes a multitude of factors to create a Littleton. “It is dangerous to take a very complex thing and whittle it down to one single cause,” cautions Leschied. “It is a combination of how culture is working, how the family is working, how the culture within that school was developing. All of this came together to create this tragedy.”

With SUSAN McCLELLAND in Toronto and JOHN GEDDES in Ottawa

SUSAN McCLELLAND

JOHN GEDDES