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Article: Why Do Kids Kill?


By Elaine Cassel

Sentenced to four life prison terms with no possibility for parole for killing Sherrice Iverson, Jeremy Strohmeyer argued that he had inherited mental illness from his biological mother and that this contributed to his crime.

The country still has not stopped talking about the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in April, 1999—or asking questions about them. Why would two teenagers from "good" homes, going to a model high school in a well-to-do Colorado suburb, kill 12 students and a teacher before putting their guns to their own heads? The public’s obsession with this question meets a timely response from psychologist James Garbarino. To learn more

The country still has not stopped talking about the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in April, 1999—or asking questions about them. Why would two teenagers from "good" homes, going to a model high school in a well-to-do Colorado suburb, kill 12 students and a teacher before putting their guns to their own heads? The public’s obsession with this question meets a timely response from psychologist James Garbarino.

Written after a series of school shootings that took place in 1997 and 1998, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (Free Press, 1999), examines the individual, familial, community, and societal characteristics and circumstances that drive children and teenagers to engage in violence towards others and themselves. The juxtaposition of two statistics provides a clue. From 1986 to 1993, child abuse and neglect rose from 14 incidents per 100,000 children to 23 per 100,000 children. From 1987 to 1996, juvenile arrests for possession of weapons, aggravated assault, robbery and murder rose more than 50 percent.

Because the spate of school shootings in 1997 and 1998 (and of course, 1999, after the book was published) took place not in the inner cities (where violence had long been commonplace and about which most Americans, least of all the media, cared little), Garbarino focused on rural and suburban middle-class boys who had assaulted or killed family members, acquaintances, and strangers. He visited some of them in their homes and others in prison (where several are serving life sentences). He listened to their stories. While not excusing their actions, he relies on respected, empirical data to help explain how child abuse, substance abuse, learning disorders, gang involvement, school failure, and access to weapons foster violence in some children and adolescents.

Garbarino, a professor of psychology at Cornell University and an author and researcher in the areas of aggression and violence, suggests strategies for preventing violence that begin with prenatal care and in infancy. He indicates how we can identify children who are at high risk for being violent. And he recommends rehabilitation programs that offer hope for those who are behind bars, waiting on visiting day for the families that never come.

Lost Boys provides well-researched and thoughtful answers to our questions, and assures us that we all can do something to stop the violence—if we care enough to care.


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