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Youth, Community, and Character
by Hans Zeiger
05 April 2004

Our once tranquil suburban neighborhoods we'd like to associate with hometown America are just as troubled as our mean urban streets.

It is the end of the innocence in the suburbs. We all knew it was long gone in the inner city. But now, come to find out, our once tranquil suburban neighborhoods we'd like to associate with hometown America are just as troubled as our mean urban streets.

A recent report from the Manhattan Institute entitled "Sex, Drugs, and Delinquency in Urban and Suburban Schools," reveals that students in suburban Puyallup, Washington, where I grew up, are as likely as their counterparts in nearby Seattle or Tacoma to have sex, smoke, drink, use illegal drugs, and engage in other forms of delinquency.

Of the high school seniors surveyed confidentially, four in ten in both urban and suburban schools have used illegal drugs, and 20 percent of suburban teens have driven while high on drugs, compared to 13 percent of urban teens.

Similar percentages of teens in cities and suburbs have driven while under the influence of alcohol, and 74 percent of suburban high school seniors have consumed alcohol on more than two or three occasions, 3 percent higher than the urban statistic. 63 percent of suburban twelfth graders and 57 percent of suburban twelfth graders drink alcohol without family members present.

Over 60 percent of suburban high school seniors have smoked cigarettes while 54 percent in urban high schools have puffed a smoke. Youth cigarette addiction is a bigger problem in suburbs than cities, with a 37 percent to 30 percent comparison.

The study found that two thirds of all suburban and urban high school seniors have had sexual intercourse, and more suburban twelfth graders (43 percent) than urban twelfth graders (39 percent) reported having had sex with a person with whom they did not have a romantic relationship. As a result, teen pregnancy rates remain high -- 14 percent of suburban and 20 percent of urban female high school seniors have been pregnant.

The report also revealed that it is almost as likely for a suburban student as an urban student to engage in stealing or violent behavior.

Indeed, the 1990s spate of school shootings didn't occur in major cities but in suburban areas like Littleton, Colorado outside of Denver; Pearl, Mississippi near Jackson; Conyers, Georgia near Atlanta; and in obscure towns like Jonesboro, Arkansas; Springfield, Oregon; West Paducah, Kentucky; and Moses Lake, Washington.

Interestingly, non-profit community agencies -- Planned Parenthood, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), Big Brothers Big Sisters -- and volunteerism, after school activities, and academic programs are doing more than ever before to attempt a remedy for youth problems of drugs, smoking, teen sex and pregnancy, and violence.

But the challenges seem to be exacerbated despite the profusion of activities, agencies, and programs. Why is innocence dying in the suburbs?

The answer is that the most essential institutions of our communities -- family and church, neighborhood and school -- have become the casualties of radical individualism. Decency, unity, and identity have been cast aside in favor of selfishness, political correctness, and change.

Mass-market popular culture has taken the place of meaningful local relationships. Vulnerable youth are the major consumers of popular culture; communities tolerate this ignoble invasion. The tragic result of too much tolerance in our homes and schools and culture in general is that young people feel completely justified in commencing premarital sex, drug use, or violence. The moral norms once cultivated in the community are nearly all evaporated into the mistiness of radical individualism.

Conservatives have often criticized Hillary Clinton's 1995 treatise, It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, because it espouses collectivism. The raising of children into responsible, contributing citizens -- far from Clinton's vision of systematic, politically controlled collectivism, but not too far from her title -- involves the cooperation of families, churches, neighborhoods, and schools. With parents at the forefront of the great task of civilizing children, communities become support networks for young people to learn the important lessons of morality, civility, and compassion.

Our entire sense of community totters on the brink of annihilation, with few exceptions across American culture, and the next generation is paying the moral price. Urban and suburban alike, too many young people are failing to acquire the character requisite for being called American citizens. Until our communities -- individuals and institutions alike -- recommit to absolute standards and expectations, we can expect to run a continual moral deficit in young America.

Neither policy nor personalities can ultimately win this culture war. It is a fundamental matter of the heart, and our churches must take the lead. A revival of the spirit is what America needs most. And it must begin locally, in our communities, if there is to be hope for the next generation of Americans.

Hans Zeiger is a Seattle Times columnist and conservative activist. He is president of the Scout Honor Coalition and a student at Hillsdale College in Michigan

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