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Another View -- Rona Zlokower: We need to reach young people before they turn violent

December 26. 2012 9:49PM

The horrific, life-shattering event at Sandy Hook Elementary School is the latest in a spate of shootings at schools and colleges long after Columbine. Across the country, there is, understandably and appropriately, new emphasis on heightened security. However, the factors that prompted these young perpetrators, making their actions possible, are what call for urgent public and media concern.

Why isn't there more focus on the troubled state of the young perpetrators' minds and how often mental health issues go untreated despite the best efforts of caretakers and professionals? Why aren't we activated by their possession and misuse of handguns and assault weapons? Why aren't we acutely concerned by the commercial use of media - networks, blogs, chat rooms, YouTube, social networking sites - and that some troubled youth have come to recognize their path to fame as the broadcasting and sharing of their horrific acts? Why aren't we outraged by entertainment media where at any time a flip through TV channels or a walk through a video or video game aisle offers us glorified crime and horrific violence as entertainment?

When will we focus on common links between many of the school shootings, especially those carried out by youth and young adults? These young people shared some characteristics: a lack of self-esteem, a history of being victimized by bullies, troubles in school, substance use, a passion for violent media, access to guns, disconnections from family, disappointments in life and, finally, the feeling that the only way to be noticed is through media coverage in all its polished and raw forms.

Many young people experience mental illness, substance use problems, abuse, neglect and other difficult issues beyond the normally difficult challenges of growing up. Many of these individuals are treated and cared for by families and strong community networks.

Yet many others slip through the cracks. And, in combination with access to guns and substances, continued exposure to media violence, and access to media technology that supports aberrant thoughts and behaviors, some young people cry out for notice. In the end, thanks to excessive and often inappropriate media coverage and the fear it propagates, the perpetrators of the school shootings may get what they seek: lots of recognition at the expense of many innocent lives, as well as their own.

Let's not become victims of this violence by living in fear with continuously heightened security measures in our homes, offices, malls, schools and public spaces. Let's be bold and call on our city, county, state and federal officials and candidates for office to focus attention and funding on mental health services, school-based student assistance, substance use prevention and treatment, parenting education, violence prevention, media literacy and gun safety and control.

No citizen, young or old, should be able to harm or take the lives of others and send communities and a nation into spirals of misplaced fear. Violence, especially that perpetrated by youth, is preventable if we join together across all lines to look beyond the question of heightening security and make the prevention of violence - not its broadcasting - our priority.

Rona Zlokower is executive director of Media Power Youth in Manchester.

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