When Teens Fall Apart

Like so many parents, Kip Kinkel's tried, and tried desperately. For 10 years, Bill and Faith Kinkel regularly huddled with teachers to figure out why Kip fought with fellow students at his Oregon elementary school. They put him on Ritalin and then Prozac. They pulled him out of seventh grade and home-schooled him. They begged the juvenile-detention center to keep their son there last May after he stashed a loaded .32 pistol in his school locker. Bill said he had "nowhere left to turn" in what was, in retrospect, a life-or-death struggle. A year ago this month Kip, then 15, killed his parents. Then he shot 24 students at his school in Springfield, Ore. Two died.

In the wake of last year's school shootings and now the Littleton massacre, educators and parents alike have been flooded with information on how to identify the child who is so aggressive that he is in danger of treating his schoolmates like targets in a videogame. Picking up the warning signs is crucial. But it isn't enough. Parents who detect these danger signs and reach out to schools, social-welfare agencies and the justice system for help too often come up empty. Some families live in communities that lack the resources or the will to offer prevention or intervention programs; others are simply turned away. There is no mystery about which programs work. But in order to tap into them, says Prof. Michael Nunno of Cornell University, "you need education and money and the moxie to navigate the system. You must be willing to make it a full-time job and get past all the people trying to tell you that everything's fine. With anything less, you're out of luck."

Kids' problems start early, and so do the problems of parents trying to help them. Children who are unresponsive, impulsive, aggressive or otherwise difficult are the most in need of competent parenting to keep their innate tendencies from pushing them toward criminality, addiction or violence. Researchers have a pretty good idea of how to help these kids. Since 1981, communities in 49 states have contracted with the "Parents as Teachers" program to screen newborns and toddlers. The program's "parent educators" teach mothers and fathers to help their child emotionally, socially and cognitively through simple games, reading, talking and loving. But they reach only 500,000 of the 19 million children under 5; that's less then 3 percent. "Society acknowledges that prevention is important," says executive director Mildred Winter, "but won't spend a lot of money on it." Financial barriers have also limited "First Step to Success." This Oregon-based program screens kindergartners for antisocial behavior and then spends three months turning around bullies-in-the-making by rewarding good behavior at school and showing parents, in their homes, how to teach their problem child to cooperate, make friends and develop confidence. First Step costs just $400 per child, but it's available in only a few schools in 10 states, says codirector Hill Walker of the University of Oregon: "Schools wait and see which kid actually develops a serious problem in, say, sixth grade before they do anything for them. But by then the horse has left the barn."

A gunman is as likely to be the bullied as the bullier. Yet when parents of bullied children report the taunts and pummeling to school authorities, the institutional response is too often, " 'You brought it on yourself; you need to take care of it yourself'," says psychologist John Crumbley, who helped evaluate Kinkel after his arrest. When one 13-year-old started skipping classes in her western Oregon school, she was expelled. A truant officer appeared on the family's doorstep to tell the parents that if they did not work out a plan to re-enroll her, they'd be fined $1,000 for negligence. "They send someone to threaten you but offer no help at all," says the distraught mother.

Help can be especially scarce in schools with huge numbers of students. In the 1960s educators fell in love with big schools, figuring they could offer a wider curriculum at lower costs. A school with a graduating class of 50 is indeed unlikely to offer six languages and eight permutations on math. But large schools dampen enthusiasm for extracurricular activities: if you're one kid out of 600, your chance of getting playing time on the soccer field or face time with the debate coach is much less than if you're one in 150. In smaller schools--the ideal four-year high school, say education researchers, is 600 to 900 kids--every student can be part of a group that includes an adult role model. And administrators have a better chance of getting to know each student. That might have made a difference to "Nick," who at 14 became fascinated with knives and dark poetry, dressed in black and began smoking marijuana. When he cut classes, his southern California school chalked it up to adolescent angst, says Nick's father: "The school is large and has a staff equipped to deal with two kinds of kids--the class president and the kid who is trying to burn the school down. Nick wasn't [either] so they didn't seem to care. What was made clear to us was that we better shape him up or he was going to be shipped out."

Even if a kid brandishes a gun, effective programs can yank him back from the brink. Since 1986 Boston students suspended for carrying weapons have been required to attend the Counseling and Intervention Center, where they spend five to 10 days learning anger management, conflict resolution and other skills. Only 8 percent of the program's graduates are caught again for violations. Salt Lake City, Cleveland, San Jose, Calif., and Rochester, N.Y., have or are developing comparable programs, but they are the exceptions. "We've got families crying out for help, and the system is not responding," says Philip Jackson, director of the Boston center. Similarly, an approach called multisystemic therapy has been shown to reduce rearrest rates of juvenile delinquents by up to 70 percent. Three to five months of home visits from a therapist, who works with parents as well as the child, costs $4,500 per child, but saves an estimated $12,000 in criminal-justice costs by reducing recidivism. Yet the program exists in only a few communities in 15 states.

An even greater problem is kids whose first offense isn't hiding a weapon in school but using one. Carol Van Strum says her adopted, biracial son Jordan was mercilessly taunted with "n-----" by both kids and adults in their rural Oregon town. She could tell he was headed for trouble. "When I asked for help, the response was, 'He hasn't committed a crime'," says Van Strum. In 1997 Jordan, then 15, killed a friend's grandfather. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

We know how to help troubled children. Yet "we don't put resources into meeting their psychological needs," says Marin County therapist Madeline Levine. "We pay for computers in their classrooms but not counselors in their schools." Perhaps Littleton will change that. For now, however, the gap between what we know about prevention and intervention and what society puts within parents' reach is a yawning chasm--a chasm that is swallowing our most vulnerable children.