It is becoming an image all too common: kids becoming killers. When 13-year-old Mitch Johnson and his 11-year-old cousin Andrew Golden slaughtered four children and one teacher in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the haunting memories returned: of Luke Woodham killing two fellow students in Pearl, Mississippi; of 14-year-old Michael Carneal murdering three classmates in Paducah, Kentucky; of Steven, the Lakeland teenager who, along with friends Tony and Jeremy, killed his father and planned a coast-to-coast killing spree that was to include murdering their other parents.
After the initial, national gasp of horror at the Jonesboro killings subsided, most of the discussion turned to guns: How did two kids get their hands on those weapons? Are our gun laws too lax? These are certainly legitimate questions, but they fail to address a more fundamental question tugging at me: What propelled these young hearts into such evil that they could plan and carry out these blood-chilling acts?
Why Is This Happening?
To answer that question, I began researching the personal histories of these young alleged killers, and what I found was that the tragedy for these kids began well before they ever squeezed the trigger.
Mitch Johnson, the 13-year-old accused of the Jonesboro killings, saw his parents go through a fairly contentious divorce. A judge had to issue restraining orders for both parents and a custody battle ensued. Later he was moved from Minnesota to Kentucky, and finally to Arkansas. He ended up being raised by his single mom, Gretchen, and often slept on a couch or on the floor in a crowded trailer home. Approximately a year before Mitch began spraying 22 bullets on the Jonesboro schoolyard, he got a new stepfather--a convicted drug dealer who had been part of an Arkansas biker gang.
Luke Woodham, the Pearl, Mississippi, high school senior accused of stabbing his mother to death and fatally shooting two students last October, also came from a troubled home. He was reportedly distressed not only over breaking up with his girlfriend, but also his parents' divorce. In a letter he wrote: "I am not insane. I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I did this to show society, 'Push us and we will push back.'"They only know what you teach 'em."
Steven, the Lakeland teenager who killed his father, was the product of a vicious five-year custody battle following his parents' bitter divorce. His father was reportedly a neglectful, unloving, uninvolved abusive alcoholic. Instead of spending time with him, Steven's dad bought him a computer, hoping that would keep the teenager busy.
The first question that immediately pops into my mind while looking at the sad, tragic lives of these kids is: Where were the fathers? Few had a strong, positive father-figure who provided training, moral guidance and love. The real story of these killings didn't begin when these boys started shooting, but years earlier, when their fathers, figuratively or literally, walked out of their lives. So how did they get hold of these weapons? They got their hands on these guns because their fathers did not have hands on their children's lives.
John Hazlewood, whose 14-year-old son Brandon attends the Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, said it best: "It never should have happened. This is not the kids' problem, it's the way we're raising them today. They only know what you teach 'em."
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