- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2000

On the eve of the anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, the question remains: What makes children murderously angry?

Youth violence most often is traced to family breakdown, such as father absence or emotional distance between parents and children, a Florida group says.

Research published this month in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) says violent youths can be identified as early as the seventh grade.

A separate study in the same issue of AJPH finds that more than 1 million homes store guns in a way that is "accessible" to children.

Family First has been studying youth violence for several years, said Mark Merrill, founder and president of the Tampa, Fla., group, which recently released a report, "Why Are Kids So Angry?"

Looking at the evidence, "we came to believe that family breakdown was a real root cause" for why some children grew up to become dangerous, Mr. Merrill said.

Father absence was particularly crucial, he said, citing a recent Family First survey of 742 juvenile offenders in Florida.

Seventy-two percent of the young offenders said they "didn't have a father involved in their lives as they grew up," he said. "They never had a dad to teach them the difference between right and wrong."

Asked about the fact that some teen-age killers have come from two-parent homes, Mr. Merrill said that it wasn't enough for parents to be there physically.

"Parents have to be there emotionally, too," he said.

The Family First report said that the "recipe for self-de-

struction" begins when parents neglect a child, either because they are wrestling with marital difficulties or because a parent leaves home.

The child can become aggressive and difficult to control, and may feel acceptance only among children with similar characteristics i.e., a gang.

The report says the entertainment industry contributes to a violent world view by popularizing bloody, senseless violence, while the computer gaming industry gives children the power to "kill" in their games.

Finally, "peer pressure, coupled with drug and alcohol abuse," creates a "toxic combination" that can lead to serious violence, the report said.

The primary antidote to youth violence is personal involvement, the report concluded. It recommended that schools adopt:

• Student-led prevention programs to detect conflicts before they escalate. The Youth Crime Watch of America is an example of a youth-led program that tracks crime reporting, school patrols and student mentoring.

• Conflict-resolution and peer-mediation programs to help students resolve conflicts. King High School in Tampa, for example, has a "peace table," where students and a trained mediator meet to work out problems.

• Character curricula that focus on "principles of civility and respect for others."

• Opportunities for parents and adults to interact with teens. For instance, Family First has a "family time challenge," in which parents pledge to hold hours of discussions about youth violence with their children.

Children of military families also may be more prone to violence. In a videotape released late last fall, Columbine killer Eric Harris griped that moving around a lot in his military family left him having to continually start over "at the bottom of the ladder" in each new community. People constantly made fun of "my face, my hair, my shirts," he said.

His father, Wayne Harris, retired from the Air Force with the rank of major in 1993. His family had followed him to New York, Montana, Michigan and Ohio before finally settling in Colorado in 1996.

"Anger is at the core of every military son whose father was abusive or distant," Mary Wertsch wrote in her 1991 book, "Military Brats." It remains "a core of fire," she continues, "and what spills over into the world is likely to be fiery as well: a quick temper, pugnacity, a choice of career that channels aggression and allows for plenty of confrontation or … an oppositional stance in the world."

A scientific study, published in the AJPH by Phyllis L. Ellickson and Kimberly A. McGuigan of RAND, in Santa Monica, Calif., found other "early predictors" of teen violence.

The researchers reviewed data from a study that tracked 4,390 seventh-grade students for five years until they were seniors.

They found that if seventh-grade boys had poor grades, engaged in socially deviant behavior, such as stealing or breaking school rules, and felt out of place in their middle school, they were "significantly more likely to be violent five years later than those who did not."

Other factors contributing to teen violence were frequent changes of elementary schools and attending "bad" schools, where use of drugs and tobacco was pervasive, the researchers said.

A second RAND study, also published in the AJPH, found that 11 million U.S. homes with children had at least one firearm.

Nearly 40 percent of these homes stored their firearms in a safe manner unloaded, separate from ammunition and in a locked container or with a trigger lock, said Dr. Mark A. Schuster.

In 55 percent of homes, however, at least one firearm was kept either in an unlocked place or did not have a trigger lock, Dr. Schuster found.

In 9 percent of homes, loaded firearms were left in an unlocked place, while another 4 percent of homes left unloaded firearms in an unlocked place near the ammunition.

This meant that about 1.4 million homes, with 2.6 million children, stored their firearms "in a manner most accessible to children," Dr. Schuster wrote.

• Julia Duin contributed to this story.

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