Over the past month, school shootings have unfortunately become a pertinent topic in California. Earlier this month, a 16-year-old killed himself after supposedly shooting five students at their Los Angeles suburb high school. Two teens died; three others were injured.
More recently, L.A. authorities arrested a 13-year-old middle-schooler because they suspected he planned to commit a school shooting. Other students told teachers they heard the teen threaten to shoot students. Police found evidence to believe the teen had the ability to commit the violent offense and, therefore, arrested him. He will possibly be charged with making criminal threats or attempted murder.
Thinking About Sentencing When The Unthinkable Happens
School shootings are undoubtedly tragic. They shouldn’t happen, and too many people, including children and adults, have lost their lives to gun violence committed by teens. Conversations surrounding this teen violence, however, most often revolve around gun control. That is an important conversation, but so is the value of proper sentencing and treatment of teens accused of violence.
In many school shooting incidents, the young perpetrator takes his own life. Those who do live to face the consequences of their actions face the most severe of sentencing. From a criminal defense and humanity standpoint, it is crucial we ask whether adult-level, life-long sentencing is appropriate for the minors who commit violence in our society. These teens committed awful acts in these cases, but they are still children. They are often children suffering from mental health issues.
There Is More Than A Gun Behind The Violence
Since school shootings have become more common in the U.S., researchers have tried to study the cases and find commonalities among the tragic incidents. While the people involved all certainly have their unique stories, the United States Department of Education claims to have identified some common factors among many of the teens behind the violence:
• History of depression
• History of attempted suicide
What do these common factors tell us? They tell us that underneath the violence was or is a teen struggling with mental and emotional health problems. In many of the school shooting cases, the teens who perpetrate the violence don’t survive; it becomes too late for the community to help them once the immeasurable damage has been done.
In the case of the recent teen arrested based on the suspicion he’d commit future violence, maybe it is not too late to reach him. There are signs of depression and other mental struggles his community could identify and address through the proper medical routes. Mental health counseling, sometimes medication, and even simple improved communication between a kid and his family can make a life-saving difference.
A pediatric study found that teens who self-report mental health problems such as depression are more likely to have access to guns. To compound that concern, other research shows if there is a gun available to a teen, the chance he will commit homicide increases by three times compared to a teen with no access to a firearm. We know the young teen in the recent case did have access to a gun, which further supported authorities’ decision to step in and act upon the suspected threat.
Defending A Teen Is Defending His Right To Hope
When a case involves violence against children by children, emotions run deep. In any criminal case, defendants are entitled to a fair legal process. When the defendant in a case is a teenager – a child, stakes are so high.
A teen facing murder or attempted murder charges has a lifetime ahead of him that will be directly altered by the outcome of the case. As a defense attorney in Los Angles who handles murder and violent crimes cases on a regular basis, the question always remains: will this young client get the chance to try to improve his well-being and outlook on the world through counseling and emotional education, or will the system treat him like a lost cause? And it is my job as a zealous criminal defense attorney to ensure the former and not the latter.