March 26, 1998
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript
In light of the Arkansas school shooting and related events, Elizabeth Farnsworth leads a panel in a discussion on whether this is an isolated incident or part of a continuing trend.
JIM LEHRER: Was the Arkansas school shooting a fluke or a part of a pattern? Spencer Michels begins our look.
SPENCER MICHELS: Most of the students at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, returned to their classrooms this morning for the first time since Tuesday's shootings, which killed five and wounded ten others. Forty-three of the school's 250 pupils stayed home. School officials tried to run the school as normal, but that didn't include a return to studying just yet.
KAREN CURTNER, Principal, Westside Middle School: We are not doing academics. We are in the classrooms with counselors and answering questions.
SPENCER MICHELS: More than 40 counselors met with students, parents, and other members of the community, helping them to deal with their grief.
DR. SCOTT POLAND, National Organization of Victims' Assistance: There's a lot of looking for answers. And what I'm telling them is that we're probably never going to have those answers. And instead of spending a lot of time trying to figure out why, we have to recognize that it happened and how can we move forward and how can we help each and every child in that school to get better.
SPENCER MICHELS: The incident began on Tuesday afternoon when two Westside students--one 11 years old and the other 13 years old--reportedly pulled the fire alarm. As their fellow students and teachers poured out of the building, the two opened fire with semiautomatic weapons, killing four classmates and one teacher. The grandfather of one of the boys told ABC that the guns had been stolen from him.
DOUG GOLDEN: (ABC News "Good Morning America") They were desperate to get ahold of the guns. They broke into the basement door, broke the glass out of the door, went upstairs. They got three rifles and ammunition for those rifles, and four pistols.
SPENCER MICHELS: The shooting in Arkansas wasn't the first time in recent months that children have killed other children at a school. In December, a 14-year-old boy opened fire on a student prayer circle at Heath High in West Paducah, Kentucky, killing three students and wounding five others. The teenager reportedly brought an arsenal of stolen weapons with him to school on the day of the shooting. Two months before that in Pearl, Mississippi, a teenager murdered his mother and then went to school, where he killed his ex-girlfriend and another student with a rifle. The 16-year-old also shot and wounded six others in the attack. Yesterday, President Clinton asked the question that has been on the minds of parents and educators. Are there any common elements between the most recent shootings?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: This is the third incident in the last few months involving young children, violence, and schools, and I'm going to ask the attorney general to find whatever experts there are in our country on this and try to analyze this terrible tragedy.
SPENCER MICHELS: The two boys in Arkansas were arraigned yesterday on murder charges as juveniles and are being held in a detention center in Jonesboro until a hearing scheduled for April 29th.
JIM LEHRER: More now and to Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And joining me are Dr. Debra Prothrow-Stith, an associate dean at the Harvard School of Public and author of "Deadly Consequences," a book about teen violence; Franklin Zimring, professor of criminal law at Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California-Berkeley and author of the upcoming book "American Youth Violence;" James Mercy, an associate director in the Division of Violence Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control; he worked on a 1996 study about violence in American schools; and Ronald Stevens, executive director of the National School Safety Center at Pepperdine University; he is a former private school administrator in Portland. Mr. Zimring, is the incident in Jonesboro part of a new trend in youth violence, do you think?
FRANKLIN ZIMRING, U.C. Berkeley School of Law: Well, I think that there's a major distinction between a tragedy and a trend. On the one hand, the cluster of fatal incidents--there have been three--and non-fatal shootings, counting one that came after the Arkansas one, there have been five--I think they're related to each other because I think that there's some copycat phenomenon going on and that is to say kids, suggestible and disturbed kids, will hear about the firearms violence in school and will fantasize about it, and some of them will do it, so that I think that there is a linkage between these and that we'd better get four or five months under our belt without these imitations and keep them off the media, and then I think that it might fall of its own weight. But there is no trend toward much younger kids--and thirteen, twelve, eleven is much younger than any significant risk for homicide in the United States. And there is no up-surge in adolescent gun violence in this part of the 90's. Indeed, the news, to the extent that there is any, is good news. The last three years there's been about a 1/3 decrease in gun fatalities.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay.
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: So tragedy, yes, trend, no.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Dr. Prothrow-Stith, tragedy, yes, trend, no?
DR. DEBORAH PROTHROW-STITH, Harvard School of Public Health: I think tragedy, yes, and trend, possibly. What we've had is an epidemic of youth violence in the United States that hit mostly urban poor minority communities in the early 90's. And that epidemic seems to be waning a bit. National crime rates are down. Rates of violence are down. But if you begin to look at younger adolescents and juvenile arrest rates, and girls and violence, you get the sense that there may be a second wave or even a third wave to this epidemic: small towns, rural areas, and girls being the third wave. It's too early to tell, but I think a prudent approach would be to say with other epidemics we often see a second and third wave. And in this case, it's better to react with prevention strategies than wait and see.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jim Mercy, you've done a study on violence in schools. What do you think, trend or not?
JAMES MERCY, Centers for Disease Control: Well, I think I would agree that tragedy, yes, trend, maybe. We have to look at this problem in the context of youth violence as a whole. And I think that we can't really be certain, given that we don't have data systems to track this problem in schools, whether this is an increasing trend. What we do know, however, is that while the youth violence epidemic has waned in our larger cities, it is still raging in medium and smaller size cities.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean, raging?
JAMES MERCY: The homicide rates are still escalating and going up among youth in medium and smaller size cities in the United States. So this problem that we see may be a reflection of this epidemic spilling over into suburban and rural areas of the country and the smaller cities.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Ronald Stephens, how do you see it?
RONALD STEPHENS, National School Safety Center: There's a couple of trends in this particular instance that I see. Whenever you have an incident like this, clearly a single incident can be a message, but a series of incidents can develop and create some specific trends. Two or three of the top issues here seem to be that, first, we've transitioned from single victim killings to multiple victim killings. A few years ago we had already moved from fist fights to gun fights in and around the schools. But has been unique in some of these more recent events is that the fire power of the weaponry has increased, resulting in much more carnage, and then, of course, most recently, looking at the age of the victims being so young in this particular case, it's almost as though the next crisis that appears is designed to be a one upmanship or one ups-personship on the last one that took place.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. I want to continue with what you just did. Looking at these three events, in particular, and Dr. Prothrow-Stith, going to now, the president said he wanted Janet Reno to look at these, or to get some experts to look at these and see what's similar, what's not similar, what do we learn from these in particular, these three, what do you learn looking at them?
DR. DEBORAH PROTHROW-STITH: Well, there are some apparent similarities to adolescent violence that we experienced in urban settings. For instance, the acquaintance nature that the victim and the perpetrators know each other; that they are in and about areas where there are children, like schools, though in school is actually unusual. I think the other thing that is unusual is that you do have this multiple killings. And that's something that we didn't see very much with the epidemic in urban settings. One of the risk factors that we are learning over and over again is that children who witness a lot of violence or are victims of violence are often at greater risk. So when we talk about vulnerable children, we are talking about that set of children. And that may be a common factor here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay.
DR. DEBORAH PROTHROW-STITH: But we don't have all the details.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Zimring, what do you see when you look at these specifically? And this will also give you a chance to respond to what your colleagues are saying about whether it's a trend.
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, the only similarities between the sorts of things that have happened in Paducah and Mississippi and in Arkansas and the general run of lethal youth violence in the early 1990's was that people who nobody thinks should have guns had guns available. I don't think that when you look at killings by teenagers, even young teenagers, that the prevalence of multiple deaths is up. I think those are the characteristics of these three cases. And I think that's important. Even the copycat shooting that we had in Daley City yesterday was--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us just a bit about that.
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: A school child took a shot at his principal. Why did that happen? Obviously, he'd been listening to the media.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But you really see these as aberrations, bizarre phenomena?
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: I see them as linked to each other and so far not importantly linked to general patterns of adolescent violence in the United States. And I think that when Jim Mercy talks about increases in violence in smaller towns, that's composed really of two things: a very relatively small increase in absolute numbers in juvenile involvement in homicides in smaller towns and outside the big cities that were the main arena, and large increases in aggravated assault arrests. And because the only surveillance system we have is the police statistics that are gathered by the FBI, we're living through a very artificial youth violence wave. And that is that police have been lowering the threshold at which they consider assaults aggravated, and for the last ten years they have been creating enormous apparent increases in youth violence because they've been arresting people for more serious grades of assaults. But the number of very serious assaults hasn't gone up. It's the sensitivity of the police that have changed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Mr. Stephens, I think parents out there are asking a real basic question, and that is: Is my kid safe when I send them out the front door in the morning? How do you answer that question?
RONALD STEPHENS: For the most part, children are safe at school. In fact, they're safer at school than probably just about anywhere else around the country, although it may be difficult to convince parents of that actor we've had a tragedy like this that receives such broad attention. But I think one of the main points to realize even in this case and the others is that typically youngsters don't just go on to a campus and start shooting a weapon. There's been some type of early warning, some type of indication, a rumor, a threat, or some indicator that a problem is likely to occur. So for the most part, I wouldn't want parents to think that simply because they're sending their children to school, they're now placing them at significant risk.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Mercy, how do you answer that question to a parent?
JAMES MERCY: Well, in our study we found that less than 1 percent of the homicides among school-aged children and adolescents occurred in and around schools. And the risk of homicide in and around schools was many, many, many times smaller than the risk on the streets in the average community. So I would say the data really bear out that schools are a very safe place for children to be and the right place for them to be.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. And Dr. Prothrow-Stith, whether this is a trend or something which is a copycat phenomenon or unusual, how does it--how can it be prevented in the future?
DR. DEBORAH PROTHROW-STITH: Well, I think especially parents, but society generally has to take into consideration that there are prevention strategies that can occur within schools, that parents can and the media can watch very carefully what we're showing children. I think the increase that we're seeing in girls being involved in violence is a direct reflection of new media images of women getting beat up and beating others up. We have a responsibility here to look at those cultural issues. I think another point that was made very well is that there are some children at risk. And the schools see these children and they know early on that because of a warning or because the child is withdrawn, or because the child has said something bizarre, that the child needs some attention. And we need, if we're going to spend millions of dollars on this problem, to give schools the capacity to respond early to those children and give them that attention. And thirdly, we need to deal with guns in this society, another issue that has come up. Children do not need to have that access to guns. I'm not sure adults need it, but I'm positive that children don't.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Stephens, do you have anything to add to that on what should be done to prevent these incidents in the future?
RONALD STEPHENS: Well, every school should develop a safe school plan. We need to encourage parents to get much more involved with their children, find out what the day has been like for them at school, talk with them, invest time with them, and then secondly, I think we've also got to look at some ways of continuing to address how we can best supervise youngsters. Some of the indicators that have come even from the perpetrators of these crimes, we've seen that a large percentage of them had a previous record of criminal misbehavior. Several had a significant involvement with drug use, others formally gang affiliated. But the most important indicator was that individuals who perpetrated these crimes had previously taken weapons to school. So I think continuing to place the issue of weapons prevention on the education agenda and continuing to monitor students--because even with all the high-tech strategies out there, still the single most effective way to keep our campuses safe is to have the physical presence of a responsible adult in the immediate vicinity.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Mercy, what do you have to add to that about how to prevent this in the future?
JAMES MERCY: Well, I think we have to recognize that no school is an island, that the violence and the levels of violence we see in society as a whole are inevitably going to spill over into our schools. And we need to take a comprehensive approach. This is not a simple problem to provide students, children, and parents with skills that they can use to resolve conflicts, and to provide adolescents with meaningful job opportunities and enriched educational opportunities, and has been emphasized before, it's inappropriate for children to have unsupervised access to lethal weapons, such as firearms.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Zimring, Janet Reno said today, the attorney general said that it might be possible to try these kids under federal law, which would allow them to be tried as adults. Would that help?
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: It would help if holding them longer in a penal facility would in any way directly respond to this, but my advice would be to quote the great media savant, Eric Severeid, who said, that the chief cause of problems is solutions. And what I think he meant in this context is that it's very hard for Americans, who are extremely optimistic and who see problems as things to solve, get solved, to just take a deep breath and stand back and think a while and hope that this mini epidemic of copycat gun misuses blows over. In general, I think that American schools are awfully safe places and maybe we ought to just worry about our grief, rather than getting into an excessive problem solving mode if it's going to change the character of our schools or our relationship to our kids.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you. Thank you all very much.