Saving America's Children

GUEST COMMENTARY

The epidemic of violence in America attacks the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society. Today in America, thousands of children will watch as 5,760 women will be beaten. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 15 children will be shot and killed by a handgun and 100,000 handguns will enter the 35,000 U.S. public schools. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 312 children will be arrested today for committing a violent crime; 9 of these arrests will be for murder. Today in America, according to the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention, one out of every four teenage deaths will be attributed to a firearm; more teenage boys will die from gunshot wounds than from all natural causes combined. Children in America are exposed to a tremendous amount of violence--in their homes, schools, communities, and through the media.

The cost to our children and to our country is extremely high. It is estimated that children will see 100,000 acts of violence on television before they enter the seventh grade. According to Metropolitan Life's national survey of rural, urban, and suburban junior high school students, 36% believe their schools do only a fair or poor job of providing a safe environment in the school building. The same survey found that 16% of students reported being the victim of a violent incident that took place in or around their school. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an African-American male born in 1989 has a 1 in 27 chance of being murdered during his lifetime. The cost of this violence is staggering. Former Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, estimates the cost at $60 billion a year, 85% of which is underwritten by tax payers. But the emotional cost is unmeasurable.

Children, particularly young children, look towards adults to keep them safe. Yet in 1991, 2.7 million children were reported to child protection agencies as victims of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, three times the number as in 1980. According to the U.S. Justice Department, of the 2,595 juveniles (ages 12-17) killed in 1992, 76% of were killed by adults. Many of these children were killed by someone they should have trusted: 40% of juvenile homicide victims were killed by family members, most of them parents; 45% were murdered by friends, neighbors, or acquaintances. If traditional havens of safety -- schools, families, neighborhoods -- are being eroded, what options are left for children?

Violence is, of course, more than statistics. Behind every number and percentage is a name, a face, and a grief. There is also a culpability and responsibility that we all share. The problem of youth violence is not a "ghetto" problem from which we can hide, behind the wrought-iron gates of Harvard. The problem is widespread and complicated, affecting children in rural and suburban areas as well as urban children. In 1987, 415,000 violent crimes occurred in or around schools. We all have a responsibility to provide a safe community for children--all children. Since we share in the problem, we must also share in its solutions.

Care about children. Children need to be safe and loved. They must be taught peacemaking skills and nurtured in their efforts to figure the world out. All children--regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic status--need to be surrounded by caring adults.

Vote and be a political voice for children. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that "peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice." Be a moral voice for children in board rooms, classrooms, voting booths and homes. According to the Children's Defense Fund, in 1992 we spent $90 million each day to bail out the nation's savings and loans, but only $100 million for the entire year to increase Head Start programs. Demand accountability from those who represent you, at all levels.

Listen to the voices of children. Children are taught, disciplined, analyzed and tested, but rarely heard. Children who are seen but not heard will lose their voices. We live in a social and political culture that ignores a significant portion of its members. Young people must be seen and heard and our national agenda must be expanded to include the voices of its youngest citizens. Margo Strom, founder of the Facing History and Ourselves Project in Boston, argued correctly that "youth who are not allowed to be resources will become problems."

Inform yourself. Don't take the statistics on this page, or in any other paper or television show at face value. Read, question and analyze. Remember that all children have stories that deserve and need to be heard and remembered. Share what you learn with friends, family, and elected officials.

Don't model violence. Violence is learned behavior. Children are sent a mixed message when a President, who in one breath threatens to punch William Safire for criticizing Hillary Rodham Clinton, in another denounces violence. We have tremendous economic, political and moral power to change what is shown on television, in movies and what is taught in classrooms. Be a personal example to the children (and adults) around you.

Do something. Begin with yourself. Work with an after-school program, a church youth group or a tutoring program. Listen to your children or younger siblings. Volunteer in a school, with a summer camp or a child advocacy agency. Margaret Mead made an important point when she said, "never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does." Take responsibility for the safety and well-being of children--all children.

Be hopeful. Education activist Paulo Freire spent decades struggling to give children a voice in his native Brazil. Despite a lifetime of failing to achieve his goals, facing exile and accusations, he remained hopeful for the future of the children of his country. "After all," Freire writes, "without hope there is little we can do. It will be hard to struggle on, and when we fight as hopeless or despairing persons, our struggle will be suicidal." Be hopeful and instill a sense of hope and high expectations in the children around you.

Eric D. Dawson '96 is Education Director of International Peace Games, PBHA.