End of Innocence


My grandfather was a high school principal. He shocked me with stories of student misbehavior. His worst story involved a student who repeatedly snuck a squirt gun into school. I wonder what he would have thought about the fifteen dead in Littleton, Colorado.

The crime wave of the eighties and early nineties has finally given way to a steady decline to end the millenium. Yet even as the violent crime rate has shrunk, juvenile gun violence has continued to rise. Why? We ask as though the mystery were profound. It is not the problem we fail to appreciate but its amplification.

Juvenile delinquency is not a new phenomenon. In 970 A.D., Socrates complained children had no manners, and no respect for adults. In the 1600s children giggled and acted in ways to suggest witches possessed them. Mark Twain gave us Huck Finn as a prototype of the mostly harmless delinquent of the turn of the century. In the 1950s and '60s, switch blades and clubs armed the delinquents later celebrated in West Side Story. Children found drugs in the 1970s and '80s and delinquency took its first serious turn. Today, youth have armed themselves with guns and violence has grown beyond reason.

Juvenile delinquency is a problem we can no longer ignore. Since 1997, a school shooting has occurred every thirteen months. A student still has only one in a million chance of being gunned down in school but even these odds seem too high. From Paducah, Kentucky, to Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Littleton, Colorado, the shootings have a common theme. They all involve marginalized children who are outcasts and yearn for a place in the spotlight.

In Pennsylvania just a few weeks ago, three students came forward to tell a teacher they were concerned about a fellow student. In the bushes outside, teachers found a shotgun and thwarted the wayward student's plan. A similar tragedy was prevented in Burlington, Wisconsin. Disaster was avoided because someone was listening to students. Someone paid attention to marginalized students and prevented a horrific outcome. If only we can find ways to pay attention to these students before the stakes get so high.

It has been too easy for teachers and parents to ignore grim-faced students sitting in the back of the classroom not causing any "real" problems. Teachers are too busy dealing with gifted students or those loudly misbehaving. Now, sadly, we realize the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds of the world cannot be ignored. Those picked on by the best and the brightest have told us the in a very ugly way that they refuse to be ignored any longer.

Their cries shouldn't have to be so loud. They shouldn't have to rise above bringing a squirt gun to school. But they have and, sadly, we are left with patrolmen in our halls and metal detectors at our doors. It is more than metal we need to detect. It is the sound of despairing marginalized youth. A detector cannot do that. Only teachers and parents can.

Matthew Miller is a federal law enforcement officer based in Sioux Falls, S.D.

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