PERSPECTIVES

At Risk

The editor of Teaching Tolerance addresses issues of school violence.

As schoolyards wake from summer slumber, the question seems no longer to be whether but when and where it will happen again. In the blink of an eye, the violent fantasies of a tortured young soul become real, and everything changes.

After the Chicago Sun-Times chose to keep the Oregon school shootings off its front page in May, a Washington, D.C., TV anchor voiced a different policy: "It's news," he said, "when a place that everyone expects to be safe turns out not to be. School is one of those places."

Especially considering its source, this generalization is remarkable. In many places, violence by and upon schoolchildren is not news at all. Widespread alarm surrounding a few incidents in predominantly White rural and suburban schools raises hard questions: Are these murders troubling because they violate the refuge of schools or only that of certain ZIP codes? In the larger context of youth violence, does our focus on campus killings obscure the forest with trees?

The National School Safety Center counted 39 "school-associated violent deaths" during the 1997-98 academic year, among assaults that numbered in the tens of thousands. For 1995, the Centers for Disease Control listed 4,617 homicides of persons aged 19 and under.

In African American neighborhoods of New Orleans, the phenomenon has fostered its own ritual garment: the "dead man's shirt," displaying inscriptions, photo buttons and other emblems of tribute to deceased young friends. Dillard University sociologist C. J. Wiltz observes, "The image is often that of a smiling youth, but behind the smile is a litany of failures -- failure to keep out of harm's way, failure of parents to keep them safe, failure of schools, failure of a city to curb the proliferation of assault weapons. And always, the failure of a society to instill in our youths a sense of hope and promise that 'tomorrow will be better.'"

We've come to expect such failures as part of the profile of being "at-risk" (increasingly a catch-all, establishment code-word for otherness -- read inner-city, single-parented, special ed, minority, poor). Yet suddenly, the news from West Paducah, Pearl, Jonesboro, Edinboro and Springfield gives the term "at-risk" new meaning.

Our schools' response to this shift warrants the deepest personal reflection, communal deliberation and media scrutiny. More clearly than at any time since segregation, social disparities are scripting our expectations for every child. Perhaps the blurred boundary between "safe" and "at-risk" can startle us from such fatalism.

As we adjust our prejudices about where youth violence can occur, we must recognize that peace can also defy expectations. The Boston Police Department, for example, coordinates a citywide effort that reduced the number of firearm homicides of juveniles to two in 1996 and one last year. Whether seeking to instill empathy in place of abandonment or hope in place of despair, we can start by acknowledging that "It can happen here."