Dr. Wes: Homicide is the second leading cause of teen deaths in America, accounting for 13 percent of lost lives from age 12 to 19. Though accidents, most of them in automobiles, kill three times as many teens, 13 percent is still a sobering number to consider. For black teens, the rate is even higher.
The faces of those statistics have, for now, become Autumn Pasquale, 12, and Jessica Ridgeway, 10, who were not only child victims of murder, but were killed by teens. Their stories are still unfolding but already point in very different directions.
Jessica’s confessed murderer was a stranger and likely mentally ill. This is the “stranger danger” scenario we imagine to pose the most serious risk — an unknown, disturbed person threatening our children while walking to school or playing the park.
Statistically, however, this is so rare as to make national news for that reason alone. Strangers are not the primary threat to our children’s wellbeing. The sex abuse scandals in Penn State, the Catholic Church and The Boy Scouts of America should prove that conclusively. Yet we gravitate toward The Stranger Myth, hoping we can shield our kids from his peril.
If current information is correct, the tragic and bizarre circumstances surrounding Autumn Pasquale’s death illustrate a more common threat. Two teens from her neighborhood are charged with her murder — kids she knew and apparently did not fear. Her peer group.
We can’t yet know what really happened in either case, and history shows that when experts pontificate about such things, they’re usually wrong. I will, however, take bets on this: When all is said and done, we’ll find a system of mental health and social services that failed all of these kids and their families. How do I know? Because such acts of violence are not normal and could not have materialized out of thin air.
Certainly, we can each cite acts of cruelty among our own teens, but far more often we see greatness, positive achievement and pro-social conduct. These murders are aberrations, and we need to understand as best we can what went wrong.
An example of real moral strength actually appears in Autumn’s case and underscores my point about the normalcy of goodness. The police were led to the suspects after the mother of one reported a suspicious Facebook posting. How devastating that must have been for her, and how reassuring it is to the rest of us.
Understanding what happened here doesn’t let the offenders off the hook — it just gives us a chance to intervene in the future.
Katie: I’d like to take a moment to honor the memory of Autumn and Jessica, as well as the other families impacted by a child’s murder. There is no loss more universal and tragic than that of a young person’s life and potential. Though our nation is currently divided by bitter politics, values and religions, humanity can grieve as one body for young people whose lives have been stolen like this.
Wes is right. These recent murderers don’t match our stereotype of tall, glowering killers with bloodshot eyes. The boys accused are 17 and 15 years old. Just kids, like the teenage girl in Missouri who murdered a 9-year-old neighbor because she “wanted to know what it felt like,” and the 15-year-old boy in Texas who shot and killed his mother and sister, commenting afterward that it “just kind of happened.” None of these crimes have rational explanations or satisfactory answers. Each came completely unexpectedly.
When I was in elementary school, safety lessons came in the form of five-minute videos featuring hulking, leery-eyed strangers and suspenseful music. We easily memorized the phrase, “Don’t talk to strangers.” But who is a stranger? Is another child a stranger? His or her parent? How many times do you have to meet someone before they stop being a stranger? Why is it OK to accept candy from strangers on Halloween but not any other day of the year?
Stranger-danger rhetoric is black-and-white on a planet colored in gray. We live in an unpredictable world, where many crimes don’t make sense, a few neighbors aren’t friendly and most strangers are.
While children and teens are safer today in America than at any other time in history, we need to build on our children’s natural fight-or-flight response. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. We must teach our kids to listen to their natural discomfort, and to assess real risks sensibly, without making them unnecessarily paranoid. No easier said than done, but important just the same.