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String of youth violence: What's up with Utah kids?

Teens need to occasionally 'unplug,' talk to real role models, experts say

SALT LAKE CITY — On Nov. 6, West Valley police officer Cody Brotherson — born and raised in the city he was hired to serve and protect — was hit and killed in the line of duty while trying to help his fellow officers stop a fleeing stolen vehicle.

It was a incident that shook the community. But even more shocking was the revelation that the three suspects who were arrested were two 15-year-olds and a 14-year-old boy accused of swerving the car toward the officer.

Brotherson's death was just one of several high-profile and violent crimes that Utah juveniles were accused of committing during the second half of 2016. Some, like the boys arrested in the Brotherson case, had prior criminal histories. While other teens had never been arrested before.

Some examples:

• On Oct. 25, a 14-year-old boy shot a 16-year-old on the grounds of Union Middle School in Sandy, according to police. He then allegedly shot him again from close range after the teen fell to the ground. The dispute was over a girl.

• On Nov. 15, police say a 16-year-old stabbed five fellow students in a locker room at Mountain View High School just as the Orem school was starting for the day. The boy is a straight-A student with no disciplinary record. It was his first year at the school. He had previously been home-schooled.

• On Dec 1, a 15-year-old boy walked into a science class at Mueller Park Junior High School and fired a shotgun into the ceiling, according to police. The boy was disarmed by his parents, who noticed missing weapons and were at the school looking for him.

• On Dec. 6, a 17-year-old housed at a youth rehabilitation home near Escalante allegedly assaulted James "Jimmy" Woolsey, 61, a counselor at facility, to death. Clay Brewer is charged as an adult with aggravated murder. Brewer had been at the Turn-About Ranch for five days when he allegedly became depressed and suicidal and tried to escape.

Despite the rash of criminal cases involving teenagers, law enforcement and juvenile justice experts say they don't believe there was a significant increase in youth-related crime during 2016.

Nevertheless, the days of meeting at the flagpole after school and duking it out are long past, said Rob Butters, director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center in the College of Social Work at the University of Utah.

When asked why many of today's youths seem to be opting to use weapons to resolve a dispute, Butters believes a big factor is not only the availability of guns but the attitude of teenagers toward weapons in general.

"Kids nowadays are exposed to a wide range of things including violence, including gun violence … much more so than when I was a teenager 30 years ago," he said. "It's not as shocking to them to think about doing things like this. And if there's a handgun in the house and they've seen plenty of people being shot and things like that. …"

Online exposure

Butters says it's impossible to blame a single factor for any violent trend. "Experts" used to point fingers at heavy metal music, then gangster rap, then violent video games for the behavior of children, he mused.

"Today's research says it's just the conglomeration of what we're exposed to, and the kids are online more and more, and they're spending less time talking to grandma about baking cookies and more time looking at whatever YouTube video is trending that day. We don't know what they're exposed to," Butters said.

"It's terrifying to think about random people on the internet being role models to our kids. But, nowadays kids can follow just about anybody on YouTube or otherwise, and are following people who are using guns or modeling guns. That can numb them to the impact of doing that."

Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder agrees that juveniles today are far too absorbed in social media.

"You go into a restaurant, you look over at a family, and every one of them are on their damn devices. Why go out to dinner?" Winder said. "(Juveniles) are being judged by the number of views. … And the number of views is being driven by dynamic or abhorrent activity."

Gang members routinely boast about their criminal activity online, the sheriff said. Some even do it to try and get into a gang.

"They're using it as their rite of passage," he said.

When that happens, behavior such as bringing a gun or knife to school starts to sound normal, Winder said.

Butters acknowledges that not every teenager will commit a crime or act out just because they have a Facebook page or are on Snapchat.

"Not all kids face an equal risk factor," he said. "Very rarely do we get a high-functioning, well-adjusted kid from a supporting family who caused a big crime."

Juvenile justice

In July, administrators from Juvenile Justice Services presented a report to the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on who is being referred to them and the behavioral health needs of those juveniles and at-risk youths. Juvenile Justice Services provides intervention, supervision and rehabilitation programs to youths who have been convicted of a crime in juvenile court.

According to the report, "The Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health estimates that 11,804 youths (ages 11-18) need substance use disorder treatment, and 98,738 children and youths need mental health treatment. Almost 1 in 5 young people have one or more mental, emotional or behavioral disorders that cause some level of impairment within a given year; however, fewer than 20 percent receive mental health services."

In December, the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, commissioned by Gov. Gary Herbert to look at the state of the juvenile justice system, found that the system is inconsistent in how it handles cases due to a lack of statewide standards.

Furthermore, most of those placed in the juvenile justice system are first-time offenders convicted on misdemeanor offenses and are unlikely to reoffend but end up in a detention center anyway, according to the report.

Butters, who has testified in many certification hearings in court, said his research has also shown that most youth offenders are unlikely to reoffend. Those who commit serious felony offenses and are certified to stand trial in adult court and are later convicted are typically sent to prison and "come out worse for the wear for sure."

The juvenile justice system needs to be reformed, Butters believes. Those who commit violent crimes aren't thinking about the consequences of their actions, he said.

"Consequential thinking is the worst with teens," he said. "People who commit murders don't pause for a moment to think, 'Boy, what's the consequence of this?'

"We need to reform the way we look at justice. No one ever said justice was punishment. Justice is righting a wrong," Butters said.

Salt Lake police are doing their part to disrupt the so-called "school to prison pipeline" theory by handling fewer criminal issues in the schools, said detective Greg Wilking. The idea, he said, is to try and let school officials handle the smaller crimes as a way to divert juveniles from making an early entrance into the criminal justice system.

"When you label these kids troublemakers, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said.

But juveniles who are already at-risk because of their home situation can become even more at-risk due to the volume of unfiltered information on the internet.

"It's really easy to have the media and internet raise our kids and entertain our kids," Butters said.

"I can't help but think as a society, there's less and less connections that are very deep. What do I mean by that? Kids don't go necessary to Scout groups and kind of have these deeper opportunities to learn social skills in a lot of instances. I won't say that's across the board. I would say, culturally there's a lot more reliance on electronics," Winder added.

Similar to the problem nationally of the public distrusting police officers, Winder believes the problem can be solved if people would put down their phones and talk to each other.

"At some point we've got to unplug and get back to actual interaction," he said. "It's easier to commit violence if you have no connection to people. I believe we need to return to the fundamentals of socialization. It's harder to harm somebody if you view them as important."