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October 1, 1997

Youth Violence: False Fears and Hard Truths

To eradicate violence, legislators, the media, and many communities are making decisions based on five major myths, while ignoring constructive steps they could be taking.
<POEM><CPYRT TXTCPYRT="txtnhold" TXTPERM="txtyperm" FIGPERM="noapply4" FIGCPYRT="noapply2"><CPYRTNME><FNAME>Gwendolyn</FNAME><SURNAME>Brooks</SURNAME></CPYRTNME></CPYRT><POEMLINE>We real cool. We</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Left school. We</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Lurk late. We</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Strike straight. We</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Sing sin. We</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Thin gin. We</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Jazz June. We</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Die soon.</POEMLINE>—"We Real Cool" in Blacks (1991). Copyright © by Gwendolyn Brooks. Reprinted with permission.</POEM>
Teachers inhabit a landscape shaped by a tidal wave of public anger and frustration against young people. This demonization of children—at least some children—is manifested in calls for caning, for orphanages, for three-strikes-and-you're-out legislation. It is reflected in welfare repeal and denial of basic education, health care, and child protection to immigrant children.
Much of America is convinced that young people—particularly African-American youth and children of color—are a menace; that these children, violent and without remorse, must be contained and feared. Many adults seem convinced that most adolescents are different from the teens we once were, that they are no longer children, that they are bad.

Half a Million Ellas

Last year, when the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald died, it was a bittersweet experience—bitter because no one can replace her thrilling talent and generous gifts, sweet because many radio stations played her records for days on end.
In her obituary, I learned a little-known fact: As a teenager, Ella Fitzgerald served time in a juvenile training school in Hudson, New York. Her journey into youth corrections remains typical for young females today: Her mother died, her stepfather was abusive, and she hit the streets running numbers and acting as a lookout at a whorehouse. At 16, she was paroled from the facility to Chick Webb's band and became rich and famous within the year.
Decades later, the singer's English teacher at the youth prison told a reporter: "We had the great Ella Fitzgerald in our class and we didn't know it." To his credit, the superintendent of the institution said: "They were all Ellas. We had no way to know it."
Today, more than a half million young Ellas—girls and boys—are in trouble with the law and incarcerated. They live in overcrowded facilities, deficient in health care and mental health personnel, lacking skilled teachers and classroom resources. Prisons in America, and prisons for youth, have literally become big business, privatized and profitable.
Teachers, parents, and those who work with youth are both frightened and besieged. The public speaks of such children in bloodthirsty animal-like terms: predators, vermin, wolf packs, roving bands in urban jungles. Children are described as remorseless, coldhearted, amoral. The media compare children to a virulent disease: plague, pestilence, cancer, blight, and virus.
In describing adolescents in crisis, we regularly and without hesitation use language that is dehumanizing and racial. News broadcasts portray the latest youth atrocity (juvenile crime reports tripled between 1990 and 1994), and politicians pander to the public's fears by offering harsh solutions, extreme penalties, and more plans to treat youth as adults in criminal court.

Five Untruths

With this barrage of misinformation, it is difficult to sort out truth from myth. Here are five untruths.
Myth 1. Juvenile crime is violent crime. In fact, in 1992, less than one-half of 1 percent of all juveniles in the United States were arrested for violent offenses (Snyder and Sikmund 1995).
Myth 2. Most youth are criminals. In 1992, only 5 percent of youth ages 10-17 were arrested for anything, and of that 5 percent, only 9 percent were arrested for a violent crime (Snyder and Sikmund 1995).
Myth 3. Youth are creating the violent crime problem. Young people comprise 11 percent of the population, but commit 9 percent of the murders, 13 percent of aggravated assaults, and 15 percent of forcible rapes. In other words, if we eliminated all youth violence tomorrow, we would still be plagued with 86 percent of the violent crime (Jones and Krisberg 1994).
Myth 4. We're jailing the violent, dangerous youth. (Incarcerated children are violent and dangerous.) The majority of children who are in detention and correctional facilities are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses (as are adults).
Myth 5. Youth violence is a new phenomenon. Violence has long been a characteristic of teenage males. In a period of 50 years, youth crime rises and falls with relatively modest curves. But male violence drops off dramatically at the age of 25 or 30.

Terrible Realities

Why, then, the uproar? Two terrible realities have redefined not just crime and violence but how we think of children and how we act and feel about community.
Reality 1. Children are killing children. Between 1984 and 1994, youth homicide skyrocketed: The number of young people charged with killing a young person increased by 144 percent. The United States now has 75 percent of all child murders in the industrialized world. And United States youngsters are twice as likely to commit suicide. This is not a naturally occurring phenomenon.
Not only are the primary victims of youth homicide other youth, but fully 72 percent of the victims are known to the perpetrator. In fact, the similarities between child victim and child perpetrator are so remarkable that many mothers in central cities may not know, when the police arrive at their door, whether their child has been killed or is the killer.
Homicide accounts for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all youth arrests and only 1 percent of youth offenses against a person—making it what criminologist Barry Krisberg calls "the tyranny of small numbers." Fortunately, the number of youth homicide arrests declined 14 percent between 1994 and 1995, and overall crime (both youth and adult) fell in both 1995 and 1996. Yet the tragedy of children killing children has colored how citizens think about our children.
Reality 2. Guns are the instrument or agent driving the youth homicide epidemic. From 1976 through 1994, nongun youth homicide was flat or slightly down. In 1984, however, the number of youth homicides with a gun began rising, more than doubling within the next decade. Today, gun homicide is the second leading cause of death for young people (after automobiles). Fifteen children per day are killed by guns in the United States, and 30 are injured.

Wrongheaded Solutions

This epidemic of homicides has led to a stampede of state and federal laws to try children as adults in adult criminal courts. These laws also feature mandatory sentencing structures and so-called "truth-in-sentencing" provisions that eliminate parole or time off for good behavior. The increase in youth homicide has been concentrated in four urban areas—Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Detroit. Although in 1994 these cities accounted for 30 percent of juvenile homicide arrests (but only 5.3 percent of the juvenile population), and that same year 82 percent of U.S. counties had no juvenile homicide offenders (Lotke and Schiraldi 1996), nearly all states and communities have responded harshly.
  • The removal of children from adult jails and prisons.
  • The separation by "sight and sound" of children from adults in prison.
  • The decriminalization of offenses such as truancy, running away, and incorrigibility.
  • An effort to examine and resist the overrepresentation of minorities in the juvenile justice system.
It is well documented that when children are placed with adults in jails and prisons they are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and twice as likely to be beaten by staff or attacked with a weapon. Toward the end of the 20th century, we have finally separated youth from adults in U.S. jails and prisons, but this major accomplishment of civilized society is now being unraveled.
Meanwhile, community concerns about safety are palpable; most of these young people will return to their community. Teachers on the front lines have reason to both champion the needs of children and to be genuinely afraid.

Eight Steps for Educators

  1. Treat all children as children. Teachers know the developmental needs of children and youth, and the capacity, creativity, and brilliance of children whom others label and dismiss.
  2. Resist the criminalization of students. Develop appropriate guidelines and flexibility for children's behavior so their mistakes can be a teaching opportunity, not simply an occasion for punishment, exile, and failure. Involve children in teen courts, peer mediation, restitution, and mentoring. Do not expel children who misbehave unless all other efforts and resources have been exhausted; these are the children who most need teachers.
  3. Create safe, smaller schools. Research suggests that small schools—schools where every child is known, schools with a strong parent presence—have less violence or disruption.
  4. Remove guns from the environment of children. In Boston, a combined effort by public health officials, police and probation officers, churches, prosecutors, and educators resulted in a comprehensive strategy to stop the killing. All those involved traced all guns used by and against children, shut down local gun dealers, and targeted older gang leaders. Boston has now gone two full years without a youth homicide.
  5. Create neighborhood alternatives to costly and failing incarceration. Day report centers, where youth who have broken the law must report after school until 10 p.m., can offer recreation, cooking, and health programs, as well as structured opportunities to do homework. Citizen-youth mediation panels can hold youth accountable for first-time, nonviolent offenses without stigmatizing them with a delinquency record or driving them deeper into the criminal justice system. Involve communities in fighting for kids.
  6. Plan mentoring, big brother/big sister programs. This is especially true for 10- to 14-year-olds who need extra adult attention and care. Careful matching and consistency is required, but rewards for both volunteers and youngsters are enormous.
  7. Advocate for what all children need for a hopeful future. Comprehensive health care, family stability, and schools that model and encourage success and productive work. Young people are watching us, and they know when we are working toward overcoming the basic inequities.
  8. Listen to children. With good reason, children feel that adults have abandoned them. Often, we are not present during the greater part of their day, and when we are, we rarely listen with open hearts. Children generally can describe their circumstances with great clarity, and being understood is the first step toward solutions. Let's be certain that we are attentive to all the "Ellas" before us today.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. (1991). "We Real Cool." In Blacks. Chicago: Third World Press.

Jones, M.A., and B. Krisberg. (1994). Images and Reality: Juvenile Crime, Youth Violence, and Public Policy. Washington, D.C.: National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Lotke, E., and V. Schiraldi. (July 1996). Juvenile Homicides: Where They Occur and the Effectiveness of Adult Court Intervention. Alexandria, Va.: National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.

Snyder, H. N., and M. Sikmund. (1995). Juvenile Offenders and Victims: A National Report. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice.

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