Viciousness of youth attacks increases while numbers remain static

December 7, 2003
Canadian Press
By Emily Yearwood-Lee

VANCOUVER (CP) - The memories came rushing back for Len Libin with the news of a fatal attack on a Grade 11 student walking home from a game of pickup basketball last week.

Three years ago, Libin's son, then a 17-year-old athlete and bright student, was beaten into a coma in a random attack by two teenagers and an adult.

The victims of such attacks, says the senior Libin, "so often seem to be just good kids that you hear about that haven't really created problems and just for some reason, I don't know why, are picked."

Joel Libin survived and, despite having to go through extensive rehabilitation, has done "remarkably well," says his father.

The 17-year-old killed last week was not so fortunate.

He was buried Friday, a week after he and three Filipino friends walked past a group of Indo-Canadian teenagers who allegedly called out racial slurs.

There was a chase and the victim, apparently the slowest in the group, was caught and beaten with a blunt object. He died hours later in hospital.

The sheer viciousness of seemingly random attacks by teenagers seems to be increasing, say youth crime experts, although they maintain the actual number of youth murders has remained static.

"What strikes me as a researcher is what I say is an apparent increase in the brutality," says Ray Corrado, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University.

Sibylle Artz, an expert in youth violence at the University of Victoria, agrees.

"That seems to be a consensus among many people who deal with the youth directly," she says.

"They all tell the same story, that they have this experience of this being more brutal, more extreme," says Artz.

"When an attack is perpetrated, it doesn't stop when somebody's down."

The Vancouver teen's death comes on the heals of a Toronto 12-year-old's slaying, allegedly by three teenagers, who were charged with first-degree murder. The victim's brother is one of the accused.

In another high-profile case, three Alberta teenagers were sentenced last month to spend 60 days in custody for spiking a slushie with a toxic chemical and serving it to a fellow student.

The motive appears to have been a dislike for the victim, whom the girls suspected of hacking into one of their computers and erasing the hard drive.

Stranger killings are far more rare, says Corrado. Police aren't aware of any prior relationship between the Vancouver victim and his alleged attackers.

One of the more controversial aspects of the Filipino youth's killing is the suggestion that race was a contributing factor.

Police have hesitated to say the attack was racially motivated, although they acknowledge racial taunts were called out by members of the Indo-Canadian group before Filipino teenager and his friends were chased.

The principal of the victim's school said last week she didn't view the attack as a racial incident.

"I think it was a violent incident," said Jennifer Palmer of Charles Tupper secondary school. "I think the people who perpetrated it may have behaved that way to any group of kids walking down the street."

In a narrow sense, the killing may have been racially motivated, says Corrado.

"The larger question is, would it have happened with another group of young people there that were even (Indo-Canadian)," he says, suggesting the answer would be "yes."

"The violence is what they are looking for; the particular target, they are not."

Regardless of motivation, Corrado and Artz said the number of youth killings in Canada has stayed at roughly the same level - 40 to 50 a year - for the last few decades.

"While the acts are horrific, there is very little indication that youth murder has gone up," says Corrado.

"Canada's youth are still quantitatively relatively non-violent, definitely compared to the United States," he says. "We're not a society where we need to be in constant fear of young people."

The criminologist could only speculate when asked for an explanation as to why brutality of random acts seems to be increasing.

"I've argued it might reflect the cultural norms of the last 15, 20 years, where video games and movies and music, even television, portray a level of violence that is really extraordinary," says Corrado.

Artz agrees. "I believe that having the imagery constantly in front of them, (communicating) that it's fine to use weapons, clubs, action-hero type behaviours.

"We are normalizing the use of violence in our efforts to sell goods."