Scapegoating Kids

I'm flipping through Glamour magazine as I'm getting my Chick Click Red pedicure. Between big red, white and blue belt buckles and Nicole Kidman's wispy hairstyles, I see several tributes to the newly visible Afghan women. On one page, this sentiment: We can judge a country's integrity by the way it treats its women, or words to that effect. Yes, and it was true last summer when the Bush administration was giving Drug War money to the Taliban, I think cynically. But at least, so far, this "war on an ism," as my partner calls it, has forced better treatment of Afghan women, and for that I'm thankful.

Ah, but judging integrity is one to ponder while my toes dry. By what measurement should we judge the US? Racial profiling? Flunk. Democratic elections? Hardy har har. The death penalty? Thanks for playing. Now a decisive one: How about the way adults in the US treat our children? F-.

On this one, even the left is in denial. Sure, many progressives would like to see access to guns denied to children, but beyond that they toe the line, at least passively: Violent kids need tough love. We must make the schools safe for "good" kids. We need zero tolerance for troublemakers. The school shooting "epidemics" must end.

The truth? This generation of kids is one of the least dangerous in decades. Adolescents have become less likely to hurt another person every year since 1993. The Justice Policy Institute compile data from the FBI and other federal crime agencies to dispel what they call "School House Hype." While 62% of the public believe juvenile crime is up, it has actually fallen 30% since 1993. Violent-crime figures are even more striking: Juvenile homicide arrests are down 56%, rape 29%, robbery 47% and assault 27%. And kids are much, much safer at school than at home.

In addition, infrequently published indicators show that teens are carrying and using fewer weapons, smoking and drinking less, having safer and less sex, doing fewer drugs, becoming pregnant less often, fighting less.

But that so-called "liberal media" routinely perpetuate poor treatment and disrespect of young people. Case in point: How many of you saw the results of the October 2001 "Indicators of School Crime and Safety" report issued by the Departments of Justice and Education filled with good news about decreasing youth crime? Not many. The Nexis database shows six mentions of the report since October. Three of those are wire services; two actual papers picked up the Associated Press story (Deseret News in Salt Lake, and the Saint Paul Pioneer Press).

Maybe that's a good thing: AP twisted the good news right out of the report: "Students are feeling safer at school, but still feel threatened by weapons, a new government report says," the AP led. The good news was obscured: Serious violent crimes at school dropped from 245,400 in 1992 to 185,600 in 1999, a 24% decrease. AP left out that minors were victims of 476,000 crimes away from school in 1999 (mostly by adults). Only 8% of children reported being a victim of a crime at school ñ- and 64% of those were theft. Deep in the AP story, we learn that in 1999, only 17% of students ages 12 through 18 reported gangs at their schools, opposed to 29% in 1995. And kids carrying weapons fell 42% since 1995.

Then the St. Paul paper re-digested the AP report on November 2: "Students are feeling safer at school, but still feel threatened by weapons, a new government report says. The annual Indicators of School Crime and Safety, released Wednesday, showed that most types of school crime dropped slightly between 1995 and 1999, with the proportion of students saying they were victims of crimes dropping to one in 12. But the report, issued by the Education and Justice departments, showed that the percentage of students who say they were threatened with a weapon at school stayed about the same." That's all. Bless St. Paul's hearts, they tried. (The seventh mention was in American Demographics' "Forecast"; they got the news right.)

No matter: Violence sells, regardless of the truth. From 1992 to 1996, US murders fell 20%, but those damned liberal networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) increased homicide coverage 721%, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Young people are rarely depicted on evening news, says Justice Policy Institute head Vincent Schiraldi. When they are, it's usually as a criminal.

This warped reporting isn't limited to the boob tube. Last year, a group of South Bronx teens of color worked with several media watchdog groups to produce "In Between the Lines: How the New York Times Frames Youth." The teens examined the Times' national and metro sections from January to March 2000. In the 93 relevant articles the Times wrote about 132 perps and 117 victims. The stories rarely discussed societal causes and mentioned only incarceration as a solution. And the paper of record has offered the same sensationalist coverage of school shootings, using phrases like "bloodbath," and "epidemic school shootings" (even by my Times writer of choice, Rick Bragg). It has run photos and names of accused teen criminals on page 1.

The Times routinely portrayed youth of color more negatively. In 11 articles where race was identifiable, the Times never quoted black or Latino youth perpetrators directly, while white kids spoke in their own defense five times. White perps, according to the Youth Force analysis, were all pictured in yearbook photos or in a suit and tie, and all outside the courtroom. Two of three minority youths were shown in courtrooms, including a March 9, 2000, full-body photo of a Latino youth with shackles on his hands and feet.

These images are unrepresentative, and they're contributing to the hysteria that causing our schools to be turned to prisons. They're propping up the movement to try children as adults. They've certainly fueled the political movement to institute zero-tolerance, one-strike policies in schools across America.

Wait! the anti-kids say. Zero tolerance plus falling violence: one plus one equals two. It's working. Nope. The rest of the story: School violence has mirrored the drop in adult violence through the 1990s. And it dropped in schools without zero-tolerance policies just as it did in those that zealously kicked kids into the street, or into jail for minor offenses. Every publicized school shooting, including Columbine, occurred in a school with zero tolerance for weapons. Kip Kinkel shot up his Oregon school after he was suspended. There is no evidence that zero-tolerance policies do anything positive beyond make a school district look like it's trying to prevent school crime. It's PR.

Meantime, most adults are either ignorant about this attack on our children, or they're part of the silent conspiracy for their own reasons (Bush? Lieberman? Nader? A Clinton?).

It's time for grown-ups to wake up. Even if you really could give a crap what happens to kids, pay attention to preserve what's good about our system (or what's left). These young people will be voting soon, they will end up our police officers, our teachers, our attorneys, our judges, that is, those who aren't in prison and don't have police records before they're 21. How then will this next generation react to their demonization and one-strike indoctrination? Will they rebel, and mete out fairness and justice at every opportunity? Or, will they say, "ah ha, now it's my chance to get even, to stick it to someone less powerful than myself"?

I hope the former, but I fear the latter. Don't hit the snooze on this one.

Donna Ladd ( is a Packard Future of Children Fellow and a freelance writer in Jackson, Miss. Send comments to:

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