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As risks rise, children fall hard

A USF educator who has spent a lifetime studying what makes kids go bad sees a buildup of risk factors at the core.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001

TAMPA -- After each tragedy on a high school campus, Kathleen Heide can expect her phone to ring. In her patient, sincere way, the University of South Florida criminology professor shares what she has learned about the violent, troubled kids she studies.

For example, she doesn't think we'll ever find one factor that alone makes kids go bad. And she thinks the violent youth episodes that are now a part of modern American life are a product of a buildup of risk factors -- single moms or grandparents raising the child; few behavior boundaries or consequences; cognitive deficits; and no connection between feeling and behavior.

How is it that Heide chose to become an expert on such a troubling part of American life?

Heide says her interest was sparked one day when she was 9 years old.

"I was watching "Million Dollar Movie,' " she recalled. "The film was Caged, and I was intrigued by the young woman in the story who got caught up with her boyfriend in a robbery."

The woman was sent to prison. "I remember how shocked I was at her treatment," Heide said. "And especially about what the warden said to the prison matron during her release." To the matron's question about what to do with the woman's file, the warden answered, "Keep it active. She'll be back."

Heide said she was distressed to see how someone with basically good values could change into a hardened criminal.

Later, as a psychology major in college, Heide said her professors encouraged her to pursue her interest in criminology. So while her classmates took their junior year abroad in European capitals, Heide immersed herself in an equally foreign culture. "It's become sort of a joke," she says, "but I tell people I spent my junior year abroad in Hell's Kitchen."

In fact, Heide spent the year studying criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which sits at the edge of the legendary Manhattan neighborhood renowned for tough characters. Another event that year started her on the path that would eventually lead to her becoming an expert on juvenile homicide.

"I saw a story in the New York Times Magazine," she recalled. "It was entitled, "They Think I Can Kill Because I'm 14.' " The article told the story of a youth who felt he could get away with murder because of his young age. Heide said the article led to an interest in whether there really were hardened juveniles in society.

She would get a bachelor's degree in psychology from Vassar College in New York and a master's degree in criminal justice from the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Now in her mid 40s, she has been studying young criminals for 20 years. It's a long time to be immersed in such disturbing research. Heide acknowledges the difficulty of the work.

"I have to have some inner strength to carry on," she said. "I couldn't have lasted this long without spiritual guidance." Heide says she feels some social responsibility to do what she can to bring about change. "I have to do my part, whether that's an evaluation or getting my message out," she said.

So what exactly is Heide's message?

We are in a new era of youth violence. While there has always been fighting in schools and, in our time, the adoption of lethal weapons, what's new is the emergence of angry, alienated, unhappy kids who take the stage and kill in a dramatic way, not unlike the images that now surround us in popular culture.

Despite the grisly reality, Heide remains hopeful.

"I'm concerned but not pessimistic," she says. As for solutions, she says the child convicts she interviewed for her book, Young Killers, put it best.

They want parents to be more involved in their lives to be able to hear what they are not saying. While they like their teachers, they wish they would just sit down and talk with them more. They want to be involved in the community, helping with activities such as fixing up houses. They want something to do and places to go just to hang out with friends and be themselves. They have no faith in politicians or government, and while they don't blame the media, they believe media should play a role, such as to get an anti-violence message out.

The last section of Heide's Young Killers reads like a guidebook for winning the fight to change a tragic reality of American life.

"People shrug and say, "It's like this everywhere,' " she says. "But that's simply not true." As examples, she points to other modern democracies where the problem is less serious, such as Canada.

What is most needed, she believes, is involvement and commitment by Americans in all walks of life. Studies of abused kids who do not turn violent often point to someone in their lives -- a neighbor, teacher, coach -- who believed in and cared about them.

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