Regarding Teen Violence, the Wake-up Call is Not for Teens

The recent video of Albert, a Chicago teen who was beaten to death, gave the U.S. a wake-up call—not because it was an isolated incident—but because the shocking video put a new public face on a systemic problem when it was run on television and on the web.

The Fenger High School tragedy created a sudden call for a ‘national conversation,’ and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder went to Chicago to address the issue of youth violence.

However, the first action at this top-level conversation was to quiet the voices of the community at large. Members of the general public, many parents, and faith-based groups were not allowed to attend this gathering—they were literally left standing out in the cold.

“Somehow, many of our young people have lost faith in the future,” said Duncan. “They’ve been denied the love, support and guidance they need.”

Somehow? Is Arne Duncan not yet familiar with the culture and effect of the American educational system?

That might be one key place where our young people are often denied love, support and guidance. Unfortunately, home would be another, where parents and parental guidance are often absent.

One thing these officials got right was the suggestion of launching a national conversation “on values.” In my thirty-plus years as an educator and administrator in the field of character based education, I can say with certainty that this problem will not be solved by funding or newly inspired policies that fade as quickly as they come to light. Values are at the core of this problem and its cure.

The statistics on teen violence are staggering and widespread:

In 2008, the Boys & Girls Clubs released the results of a new survey, which asked teens about violence in their communities. The findings showed that:

  • 22 percent of youth surveyed said they know of students who regularly carry weapons;
  • 28 percent have been offered drugs at school;
  • More than 25 percent were afraid to go to school;
  • More than half said their school has a bullying problem;
  • Almost 40 percent see fights at school daily or weekly.

Here are more troubling statistics from the website

  • 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students.
  • 85 percent of girls and 76 percent of boys have been sexually harassed in some form, and only 18 percent of those incidents were perpetrated by an adult.
  • Young bullies carry a 1-in-4 chance of having a criminal record by age 30.
  • One in seven students is either a bully or a victim.
  • One out of 20 students has seen a student with a gun at school.

Why are fear and violence becoming the values governing our children? Why should fear and violence play any role in their worries and in the course of their day? What are the values our kids are growing up with?

For one, they are learning in an educational system that has become preoccupied with achievement and test scores. Kids are divided up into winners and losers early on if they don’t respond accordingly to standardized aptitude tests. And they will never misread our true expectations of them. Kids know we have created a system that values their aptitude more than their attitude, their ability more than their effort, and their talent more than their character. They are surrounded by signs that tell them that what they can do is more important than who they are.

They are living in a culture gripped by monetary achievement and success, and media saturated with the shock factor of ‘reality TV.’ Combine the lack of self-worth teens can feel about their lives today, with the power of violent video games that can possess them for hours on end—then you begin to get the picture: Teens are just doing their best with what they have been given.

We get what we get: isolated, angry, sad, depressed, troubled, frustrated, lonely kids who feel objectified and uncared for, and who are sometimes coming from broken or violent homes that are not able to provide basic roadmaps of relationships and conflict resolution.

Is this the best we can do?

The wake-up call of teen violence is not for teens – it is for parents and educators.

At last year’s Black Caucus, the Obama administration called upon the educational system to include parents as an integral part of their child’s education. Over the past 40 years I have seen firsthand at Hyde Schools the impact this can make on children’s lives, and perceive it as the best way to move forward together in learning, healing, and leading.

But what has come of that suggestion a year later?

Following another violent crime, the general public was shut out of a high-level meeting.

At the end of the day, we need a mixture of families working together with the school system and the attitude of “It Takes a Village.” The kids can’t do it by themselves. We cannot do it for them. But we can form a partnership that gets it done.

Open the doors. Let all voices be heard. Teens need all the support they can get.

Malcolm Gauld
President, Hyde Schools:
Bath, Maine
Woodstock Connecticut
New Haven, Connecticut
Bronx, New York
Washington DC

Author, The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have