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Archive for Sunday, October 15, 2006

Beyond school tragedy, kids still die young

October 15, 2006

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His name was Alex Anthony.

He was a jokester; a boy known as one of the best dancers in his family; a loyal companion to his grandmother, with whom he shared the same birthday.

Last month, the 13-year-old - shot in the head by a stray bullet a block from his Indianapolis home - quietly slipped away after his family made the agonizing decision to have him taken off life support.

"This is something we will never get over," said Hattie Hunter-Anthony, one of Alex's many aunts in his large, extended family.

The horrific school shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin and at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, which left six girls and a principal dead, all within a week, have caused many to wonder just how safe our children are.

Truth is, young Americans die at the hands of other people at an alarming rate, greater than any other Western nation. Every day in 2003, an average of about 15 youth, ages 10 to 24, were victims of intentional and accidental killings, according to the most recent statistics available from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Few of them died in school shootings.

More often, they were the Alexes of the world - most likely to be shot, but also the victims of stabbings, beatings and other abuse.

While experts are pleased that the White House has taken action to explore the serious issue of school shootings, many say they wish similar efforts were being made to address these other killings.

"I think we've come to expect violence in cities, violence among urban youth, violence among minority youth," said Dr. Linda Teplin, a psychiatry professor and director of the psycho-legal studies program at Northwestern University's medical school. "It no longer shocks us. It's the unexpected that shocks us."

In a study published last year in the medical journal Pediatrics, Teplin and her co-authors reported that school shootings resulted in 52 deaths between 1990 and 2000. By comparison, they noted that in New York City alone during the same time period, homicides accounted for the deaths of 840 inner city youths, ages 14 to 17.

Rural areas are not without their share of killings.

They include the case of 4-year-old Sean Paddock, who died in March in Johnston County, N.C., after his adopted mother allegedly suffocated him by wrapping him in blankets to punish him.

Sheriff Steve Bizzell still gets calls from residents expressing concern about the case. Among other things, he says the mother, who is in jail awaiting trial, beat her children with plumbing pipe to discipline them.

Other instances of violence against youth in the county have received less attention. "A lot of times, it never makes the papers," Bizzell said, though he wishes that weren't the case.

"No crime is more important than another. Abuse is abuse. Death is death."

Even so, school shootings remain a top worry for many, partly because of their random nature - and because they happen in a setting we would like to assume is safe.

"But it's important to keep it in perspective," said Dr. Karen Sheehan, medical director of the Injury Prevention and Research Center at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

More than homicide, she notes that young people are most likely to be killed in a motor vehicle accident, the No. 1 cause of death for children and teens. It makes more sense to wear seat belts and lock guns and ammunition separately than to worry about school shootings, she says.

Neighborhood violence and family abuse are tougher issues, but also must be addressed, says Marleen Wong, director of crisis counseling and intervention services for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

For years, she and researchers at UCLA have surveyed hundreds of students at middle schools in that city's poorest neighborhoods. They've found that as many as 92 percent have had at least one exposure to community violence, as a witness to or victim of beatings, gun and knife threats and shootings.

About a third have shown signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, along with depression.

"I don't think people acknowledge the impact violence has on these kids. They don't just get over it," Wong says. "That's like saying 'My kid has cancer, but I can't do anything about it.'

"Never giving up is what we have to do."

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