Is Teen Violence Really Growing?

Statistics suggest not. But it's the kind of violence that calls for concern and action.

When 15-year-old Jane Creba was killed in the crossfire of a gang shootout on Boxing Day in the heart of Toronto last year, my family was shaken and angered. It marked 12 months since the start of what seemed to us a terrible year of senseless youth violence, beginning with the stabbing death of Drew Stewart, 16, in Toronto's east end on December 3, 2004.

We didn't know Drew, but within hours of that news, my teens were clustered around the computer, conversing frantically through instant messaging. It turned out my son, Jonathon, then 14, knew a girl who had gone to school with the slain youth, while my 18-year-old, Meaghan, discovered her boyfriend's brother had a similar connection. It brought the tragedy close to home, and over the next couple of nights around the supper table, we talked about violence and conflict among teens.

And I'm learning something frightening: Their world seems a lot different from what mine was when I was growing up. Today they feel the threat of violence and weapons is ever present. Teen conflict that once may have begun with a fist fight and ended with a bloody nose, too often now ends with body bags and murder charges.

However, there's a huge gap between my perception-shared by many front-line workers, police and the rest of the public who read the headlines about innocent kids such as Jane and Drew-and what a number of experts in the field of youth violence have to say. University of Toronto sociologist Julian Tanner, for example, says the issue is driven by sensational media reports. "There's no headline when there's no murder," he says, noting there's been no marked increase in serious violent incidents involving youth 12 to 17 years over the past 20 years.

So where does the truth lie? Do the numbers tell the story? Are we letting emotion cloud our judgement? Certainly Drew Stewart's death, and the headlines that followed, hit close to home. He merely stood up to defend a pregnant teen playing pool at a Chinese restaurant after she was punched in the face. The mob turned on Drew and chased him down the block to a doorway, where they stabbed him. He bled to death a few metres from East York Collegiate, where he was in Grade 10.

Just a few nights later, on December 11, Tanner Hopkins, 18, was fatally stabbed on the doorstep of his parents' home in a quiet, affluent north Toronto neighbourhood when he tried to stop some teens from crashing a party. The same night, 19-year-old college student Nabil Saleh was also stabbed to death, while trying to settle a dispute on the dance floor at a downtown Toronto club. In Richmond, B.C., also on December 11, five teens were stabbed during a fracas at a house party. "We see more and more of this type of incident with young people and weapons, knives especially," says Richmond RCMP Cpl. Peter Thiessen.

Despite all those headlines, Mark Totten, director of research at the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa and coauthor with Katherine Kelly of When Children Kill: A Social-Psychological Study of Youth Homicide, agrees with Julian Tanner that things aren't as bad as they appear. Totten, who has worked with gangs and high-risk, violent youth for 20 years, says that because few homicides involve young people, any shift in a given year seems like a jump. "There's not one shred of evidence that youth violence is on the rise," he says, noting that over the past five decades youth homicides in Canada have remained at about 40 to 60 a year.

In 2000 the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS) reported a big jump in youth violent crime-which includes homicide, attempted robbery, assault, sexual assault, abduction and robbery. The rate of youths charged for violent offences shot up seven percent over 1999. In 2001 violent crime rose two percent. But in 2002 it fell two percent. In 2003 it blipped back up three percent, falling again in 2004 by two percent.

It's the crime rate per 100,000 population that is the key trend line to watch, says Tanner, but even those statistics may not tell the whole story. Youth crime-especially youth-on-youth violence-is under-reported. A study coauthored by Tanner found half of youth said they wouldn't report being victimized to parents, teachers or police for fear of being grounded or branded as a snitch, among other things.

Toronto Police Services Staff Sgt. Dave Saunders of Youth Services also notes that many crimes aren't considered "youth crimes" unless a youth is charged. "They're recorded just as crime incidents," he said, noting it further muddies the picture.

Overall, violent youth crime does seem to be growing: The CCJS records some 22,635 youths charged with violent crimes in 2000, which leaps to 38,136 by 2004; as does the rate, to 1,497 per 100,000 teens in 2004, from 923 in 2000. Surely these numbers show an alarming trend?

Well, not quite. The CCJS says part of the increase in reported violent youth crime flows from changes to the law and the way incidents are dealt with by police. CCJS also notes not all police forces gather records the same way, making comparisons between jurisdictions even more difficult.

Despite the numbers, police officers such as Staff Sargent Saunders insist there's more of a problem of youth carrying and using weapons as teens adopt a hit-first-or-be-hit strategy. "Retribution tends to be more organized," he says. "The fear teens have is that the other guy is carrying a knife and is willing to use it."

"It's not just a fight between two people anymore," says Halifax City Police Const. Brian Lillington. "Now it's your crew and my crew. And the threat of a weapon is always there."

Police across Canada echo these concerns. Today's communication technology often adds fuel to the fire, says Winnipeg City Police Services Sgt. Brett Summers. "With instant messaging, there's a lot more contact between youths," he says. "A flippant comment can be perceived as aggressive and may elevate a situation."

Last April at Winnipeg's upscale Windsor Park Collegiate, teens with machetes, baseball bats and pipes gathered for a fight and turned on teachers who tried to break it up. Four youths were treated in hospital and two 18-year-olds and three 17-year-olds have been charged with assault with a weapon and possession of a weapon for dangerous purposes. "About eight years ago we saw an increase in youth gangs, and the weapon of choice was a cue ball in a sock, which is pretty devastating," says Summers. "Now there's an inclination to go to more lethal weapons such as knives and guns."

It's that propensity for dangerous weapons that worries Ontario Family Court Judge Marvin Zuker. "It should force all of us to ask some hard questions: Why is a knife a common weapon?" Zuker asks. "We have a society that has normalized, even glamorized, violence and weapons, fed by a popular culture that attributes credibility and prestige to the images of gangs and violent criminals through popular music and video games."

Because schools are a prime battleground, authorities have taken dramatic steps to ensure safety within their walls. A 2000 amendment to the Ontario Education Act set out to ensure safety and security in schools, with strict guidelines for suspensions and expulsions."Safety has trumped literacy as the No. 1 concern in many school boards across the country," says Stu Auty of the Canadian Safe School Network (CSSN), a charitable organization raising awareness about school violence and creating prevention programs.

Bruce Cameron, the former central coordinating principal of safe schools and alternative programs for the Toronto District School Board, reviewed about 24,000 suspensions annually. Ninety-three percent were minor infractions, such as pushing or verbal assaults, and result in a suspension of five days or less. And 83 percent of the 15,000 students involved stay out of trouble afterwards. (Many students received more than one suspension.)

Still, there are always a few problem cases. About 300 students a year-the number is declining-are given limited expulsions (meaning they can enroll at another school) or full expulsions (they're out of the regular school system). The infractions most often involve fighting, physical assault, bullying, intimidation, threatening with a weapon and uttering threats, Cameron says.

"Not only has the level of violence increased, but the propensity to go to weapons quickly has also increased," he says, noting that many of those expelled end up completing alternative programs and reintegrating into schools, but a small minority just drop out. It's not perfect, Cameron says, but it protects the majority of students and the staff from the small number of teens causing problems.

Zero-tolerance school policies worry Totten. "Problem students tend to be from a minority or they're poor, exactly the kids who need to be in school. Zero tolerance creates a pipeline directly to the justice system."

Prevention is a better strategy. "A very small number of teens across Canada were involved in the most serious types of violence last year. They're highly aggressive and disproportionately responsible for the majority of the violence. Each community needs to identify these youths early."

Totten says violent offenders are six times more likely to be male, 16 or 17 (rather than adult), and generally they fall into three groups: those who were abused as children, who suffered some trauma in adolescence, or who developed a lust for adrenaline as well as self-destructive behaviour. However, he stresses that the few who do become violent criminals do so due to a complex combination of their history, peer groups and circumstances.

"Many people think these kids are born monsters," he says. "Not true. They're trained and coached by very poor adult mentors, and for a variety of complicated reasons they end up in a situation where they kill someone."

Some U.S. cities have developed effective ways to prevent children from becoming violent offenders. St. Louis, Mo., Louisville, Ky., and Jacksonville, Fla., for example, have created models that share their resources and intervene early on, Totten says. High-risk mothers-teens themselves, living in poverty, with drug or alcohol issues-benefit from programs using public-health nurses to educate and guide them in parenting. Simply removing a child from such a parent doesn't solve the problem, Totten notes. "Bouncing a child around from foster home to foster home only teaches them to mistrust authority," he says, and may make things worse.

Bullying-prevention programs are another way to keep young people from resorting to excessive violence. "Bullying was behind the incidents in Columbine, in Taber, Alta., and more recently, Minnesota," says the CSSN's Stu Auty, referring to the deadly school shootings by teen students. "The victims suffer in silence, then become the victimizers."

Totten and Kelly found the same patterns while researching their book about young killers. They interviewed 19 youths incarcerated for homicide, many of whom had reported being bullied because they didn't fit in, then discovered that wreaking violence won them respect and acceptance.

To address that impact, Judge Zuker advocates restorative-justice programs such as PACT (participation, acknowledgement, commitment and transformation), which encourage the offenders to meet their victims, learn about the impact of their actions and participate in deciding the consequences. Modelled on a British Columbia program, PACT costs about $400 a case (a typical case in the regular court system costs around $2,000) and has a recidivism rate of less than five percent, compared to the average youth rate of 43 percent.

Zuker also encourages parents to keep talking to their kids about the violence they see on the Web, on TV, in video games and in the world around them. "Set standards for appropriate behaviour at home, teach kids to resolve differences appropriately and to find ways to express anger and frustration without striking out," he says. However, even if the stats suggest otherwise, the fear generated by the headlines is real. Sociologist Julian Tanner says the worst thing we can do is panic. "It's not that I'm soft on crime," he says. "One stabbing is one too many."

Still, the sad thing, as my son, Jon, points out, is that teenage-murder-victim Jane Creba was in the wrong place at the wrong time, while Drew Stewart, Tanner Hopkins and Nabil Saleh were good kids with strong values, doing the right thing for the right reasons. "That could have been me, you know," he says. "I would have stood up like they did. It was the right thing to do."

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