Ask teenagers to discuss violence, and they recite a string of causes from wounded pride and malicious gossip to a deeper sense of not belonging.
"It takes one word of gossip; it takes one bad word from your friend," 18-year-old Zohra Atmar told Attorney General Janet Reno and Education Secretary Richard Riley at their first talk session on school violence. The violence "comes down quickly," Atmar said Thursday. "A lot of violence comes from hurt pride," said Chris Allgood, 18.The only way for the slighted person to divert the shame is to "bring the attention on the other" through violence, said Kate Riddile, also 18. "Nobody wants to back down and look like a coward." When a fight breaks out, others encourage it by forming a circle.
Public humiliation might be one of the oldest, most common and quickest prompts to violence.
Moderator Patrick Welsh, an English teacher, quoted Shakespeare's Henry IV about honor among his "band of brothers" - fellow warriors.
But the 34 students from T.C. Williams High School said the setting is not a battlefield or dueling ground but a society that condones too much violence, measures success by the numbers and fails to view young people as individuals who can be talked to intelligently.
"The standard of society is other than being civilized," said Melvin X, a 19-year-old graduate and welterweight boxer who limits his fighting to the ring. Wearing a bow tie and suit, he blamed media promotion of violence and complained to Reno about police harassment of black men who wear bandannas, baggy jeans and white shirts. "Why classify him?" he said.
"Look at the person you wouldn't expect to do it," said Crystal Marshall, 18, who also resented the stereotypes. She noted that the wave of killings in Springfield, Ore., Edinboro, Pa., Jonesboro, Ark., West Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss., were committed by alienated white males in rural settings.
Reno and Riley were using the session to gather material for a White House conference Oct. 15, less than three weeks from the midterm congressional elections. Education is the hot issue of the year, and Democrats are still viewed as weak on crime issues such as violence.
The administration is performing a difficult juggling act of calling attention to school violence without portraying schools as unsafe. Too much of that, and Republicans can push their agenda of vouchers and tax breaks for private or parochial school tuition.
Riley provoked a heated response when he talked about another top issue: high standards for students. He insisted he was talking about performance in "all directions," but that is not how test-weary graduates took it, even those with high grade-point averages and bound for good colleges.
"I just feel like a statistic," said Erin Boyer, 18, complaining that society just writes off many underachieving students, while focusing too much on appearance and performance.
"Standards are very impersonal, no matter how across-the-board you try to be," said Lucia Gajda, 18. "The individual is the important thing, not the person."