Toronto Star

November 20, 1999

Kids who kill kids

Pumping up the `level of cruelty'

The intensity of the hatred in teenage violence horrifies Toronto

By Scott Simmie
Toronto Star Feature Writer

Kids aren't supposed to kill kids. Nor are they supposed to torture them.

This week we discovered they can do both.

Terribly well.

On Sunday, there was the apparently random beating death of Dmitri Baranovski - a 15-year-old whose only provocation was being alive in the wrong place.

Tuesday saw four teenaged girls carry out a mini-Inquisition on a younger teen they suspected of dating the wrong boy. For two hours, they scarred her with cigarette burns, bruises, hatred. The suspects showed no remorse when police arrived on the scene.

Much of Toronto was horrified. People less insulated from the realities of teen violence were not.

``The level of cruelty has certainly gone up,'' says Const. Kevin Guess, who spent years working in the Street Crime and Youth Violence units of the Metro Police.

Guess, author of a book on protecting children from teen violence, has seen a lot in his work. Enough to see a trend.

``When an attack occurs (now), there's less willingness to back off when they see that a young person is down and clearly out of the game,'' he says. ``It's not a fight anymore. And a group against one is never a fight anyway - it's basically a beating. It's a torture situation.''

The beating death of Dmitri Baranovski merits a horrible league of its own

Officially, things are better than in recent years. Statistics Canada data show the youth murder rate remaining steady, and indicate a slight decline in the number of youths charged with violent crimes.

Critics say those numbers - at least the ones regarding violent crimes - fail to reveal the full story.

Some teens, it's suggested, currently live in such pervasive fear that they won't report assaults, even serious ones, for fear of retribution.

And because the statistics do not differentiate between a simple slap and a permanent maiming, researchers say they fail to reveal that the intensity of violence appears to be on the rise.

``The severity seems to be increasing,'' says Sorrel Nicholl, associate director for the Institute for the study of Antisocial behaviour in Youth (I.A.Y.).

``At one point they'd just maybe be beaten up. But now it's at the point where they're being killed. So that's of great concern.''

The Baranovski beating, for a number of reasons, merits a horrible league of its own. Though some have drawn a parallel with the murder of British Columbia teen Reena Virk by her peers, this case is starkly different.

``In the case of Reena Virk,'' says psychologist David Day of Ryerson Polytechnical University, an authority on teen violence, ``there seemed to be more systematic bullying and teasing of Reena to a point where it led to that young woman's death.

``This (case) seems to be a case of the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which is, to me, a senseless, senseless act of violence.''

And, unlike the Virk case, those who pummelled Dmitri Baranovski to his death wore balaclavas. Disguises tend to make those wearing them capable of far more terrible acts of violence than would normally occur.

``It (disguise) is a disinhibitor,'' says Day. ``It allows you to act in ways that you otherwise might not if you did not have a mask over your face.'' It certainly helped the Ku Klux Klan.

Precisely why teens are capable of such viciousness is a vastly complex question.

Although disturbed home settings can clearly predispose kids toward violence, some aggressive teens come from stable settings with positive role models.

``There is no simple answer,'' says Ken Goldberg, executive director of Earlscourt Child & Family Centre. Nor, he warns, should people point a narrow finger or blame toward simple targets.

``I think it's wrong to go: `Oh, it's violence on TV that does it; it's single parents that do it; it's the school system that's failed these kids.' Well, it's just not that simple.'' What is clear is the role a group can play. The wrong group.

``Anti-social youths tend to gravitate towards an anti-social peer group,'' says Goldberg, who has extensive experience working with young people in conflict with the law.

``They tend to not have warm fuzzy families where there are close attachments.

And so they tend to get their reinforcement and their good feelings from deviant peers.'' And that, says Constable Guess, is trouble.

``They cling to each other for their self-esteem needs. And when that happens it's very dangerous, because they're clinging to other time-bombs.''

In both of this week's cases, not one of those in the group attempted to stop the assault.

Such is the frightening allure of belonging.

``Nobody wants to step outside the boundaries of that group for fear that they'll be left alone, they'll be ostracized by that group,'' says Guess.

``And that, to me, is probably the scariest thing.''

Early identification and intervention of those at risk is said to be the most prudent approach to the problem.

Tightening laws, say researchers, achieves little because many teens are incapable of forseeing the consequences of their actions. And that, says Goldberg, is what truly needs to change.

``We want them to stop and think about the consequences of their behaviour,'' he says.

``Because often these kids don't. In mob context, individuals often don't think about the consequences.''

Those who happened upon Dmitri Baranovski, 15, clearly did not.

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