Archive for Wednesday, April 28, 1999

SCHOOL VIOLENCE: WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?

April 28, 1999

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— These days, as I try to find meaning in mayhem and make sense of massacre, there is a phrase that keeps echoing in my mind: "So, what are we gonna do about it?"

It comes to me in, of all things, the voice of the comic Richard Pryor. He had a routine about the time when he was hospitalized and Jim Brown came to visit. The comedian was trying to con himself and his friend about the drug addiction that had landed him in the burn unit.

Pryor shucked and jived, but every time he shucked, Brown said quietly, "So, what are you gonna do about it?" And every time he jived, Brown repeated, "So what are you gonna do about it?"

This week, this mourning, we are up to our ears in blame. We have gone down an endless grocery list of targets: parents, principals, teachers, video games, movies, the Internet, the NRA, Hollywood, the culture of cliques, the culture of violence. And of course, Hitler.

There are more than enough Ph.D.s and politicians offering opinions. Gary Bauer called for prayer in the schools. Bill Clinton called for more school security. Pat Buchanan talked of "hell" and Al Gore of V-chips. One sociologist said self-esteem was the cure and another said school uniforms were the solution. Those who blame guns argue with those who blame Doom and Quake.

How many times have we been through this? How many times have people who worry about the same problem and disagree on the cure, stood in a circle and taken aim at each other? How often do the people defending the First Amendment and the people defending the Second Amendment fight each other to a standstill?

So, what are we gonna do about it?

I don't believe that we are as helpless as we may feel. A playwright and father, William Mastrosimone, who put his own one-act about school violence on the Internet -- "Bang Bang, You're Dead" -- says he's on the losing end of a battle against the culture: "I feel like my house is the Alamo."

But consider what we've done in the past few years. That other, hopeless and intractable problem -- teen-age pregnancy -- has turned around. Pregnancies are down over 14 percent in a handful of years. I don't know how much is due to promoting condoms or celibacy, how much is due to changing attitudes or parents. Give them all credit; but we paid for this change with the coin of attention.

What of that other old, invincible enemy: Big Tobacco? These men, as deeply entrenched as the NRA in our economy and politics, are on the run. Thank the lawyers or doctors, blame the tobacco makers' own hubris. But at last America turned on them. The Supreme Court decided Monday to hear a case about whether the FDA can crack down on sales to kids. This too is change.

And what about drugs? How many parents have felt overwhelmed and impotent in combating the drug culture? A study this very week says simply that the teens who get strong anti-drug messages from their parents are much less likely to use drugs.

We are not helpless. Or hopeless. So what are we gonna do about it?

This is what Americans agree on: There is something wrong when parents are so out of touch they don't know bombs are being built under their roof. There is something wrong with a culture so gun-ridden that two kids can create an arsenal.

There's something wrong when our children are abandoned to a high school subculture so segregated that adults do not even see a trench coat mafia. Something wrong when we allow children to practice murder in video games that deliberately mimic military desensitizing programs.

Someday -- or is it today? -- we'll wonder how we ever allowed the gun manufacturers and the violence marketers to have such power over our families. We'll wonder why we turned over our children to high schools so vast and alienating -- places where adolescents often create their own destructive rules.

We are in what some call "a teaching moment." Massacre is our tutor. But attention turns swiftly from one mayhem to another. Littleton trumped Kosovo. What will trump Littleton? A young man at the edge of the funeral Sunday was no more cynical than many when he said, "It's going to go back to the same scene."

We need fewer guns and more adults. We need parents to be brave and the people who make money and fun out of violence to be shunned with deep, abiding shame.

What are we gonna do about it? There is no one thing. There is everything.

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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