They Only Know What You Teach 'Em

A Wake-Up Call

The sounds of gunshots in a small Arkansas town continue to ring like a bell - a bell that tolls for four little girls and a dedicated teacher who put herself in mortal danger to shield a fifth child from a hail of bullets, unleashed, God help us, by a 13-year-old boy and his 11-year-old pal.

But the bell sounds not only for the innocent dead in Jonesboro. It also tolls for a nation that is turning its back on the moral law it once cherished - a law written on every human heart, yet unrecognized by many members of the younger generation who have never heard about it from their elders.

Are we surprised at the spectacle of children killing children? Are we shocked to open our newspapers, turn on our TVs, and look into the faces of a couple of Opie and Beaver look-alikes charged with five counts of capital murder? Didn't we see it coming?

We should have known...  should have anticipated... that children who have watched thousands of murders on prime-time television, followed the deadly exploits of Dr. Kevorkian, and been taught that there are no moral absolutes...  might come to see little harm in gunning down their classmates.

Jonesboro marks a point of crisis, but one that is hardly new or unique.  What happened in this small town in Arkansas symbolizes America in moral free-fall, America on a rapidly descending spiral, America without God - an America that has forgotten what her founding fathers meant when they warned that only a virtuous people could remain free.

If that statement is accurate, and history has consistently validated it, then we are living in the twilight of our liberty.

As always when a culture begins to unravel, it is the youngest members who are most wounded and disturbed. Consider the following reports of unspeakable crimes committed not by hardened thugs but by lost children:

  • September 1995:  A family made a wrong turn down a street in Los Angeles and was subjected to a hail of gunfire that killed their little girl. Gang members poured bullets into the car for the "sheer fun of it."1
  • November 1996:  A teenage girl delivered a child in a Delaware motel, then she and her boyfriend allegedly put the living baby in a plastic bag and dropped it in a dumpster.2
  • June 1997:  A New Jersey teenager gave birth to her baby in a bathroom stall at her high school prom. She dropped the baby in the trash, then returned to the dance floor, where she asked the band to play her favorite song, "The Unforgiven."3
  • October 1997:  A 16-year-old boy in Pearl, Mississippi, allegedly slayed his mother, then went to school and shot nine students, killing two, including his former girlfriend.4
  • December 1997: A young boy opened fire at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, killing three and wounding five of his classmates.5
  • December 1997:  A 14-year-old boy in Stamps, Arkansas, allegedly fired sniper rounds outside his school, wounding two students.6
  • March 1998:  In Dallas, Texas, four teenagers claiming to be vampires went on a drug-crazed destruction spree, vandalizing dozens of cars and homes, spray-painting racial slurs and burning down the office and fellowship hall of Bethany Lutheran Church.7
  • April 1998:  In Yonkers, N.Y., a 15-year-old girl, upset that her teacher called her parents about her poor academic performance, attacked the pregnant instructor with a hammer. The teacher suffered multiple skull fractures.8
  • April 1998: In Indianapolis, Indiana, police have begun random searches for weapons on school buses and in elementary schools after an 8-year-old boy allegedly pointed a gun at a female classmate who was teasing him about his ears.9
  • April 1998:  Four teenagers in Santa Cruz, California, were arrested on charges of drugging an 11-year-old girl and raping her. The teens allegedly raped her in a parking lot, and then drove ten miles to a wooded area where they smoked heroin and raped her again for several hours. The police said that the girl was so drugged that she could not fend off their attack. Assistant District Attorney Bob Lee said, "They took the child and did about everything they could.... It's as egregious as it could possibly [be]."10

This chronicle of children who have committed horrible crimes is symptomatic of a culture in chaos. John Hazlewood, whose 14-year-old son Brandon attends the Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, said it best: "This is not the kids' problem; it's the way we're raising them today. They only know what you teach 'em."11

Where did we go wrong? At least some of the answers can be found in the radical notions that have emerged in the last 30 years. Judges, with the acquiescence of our legislators, have made it illegal for our schools to post the Ten Commandments. It is becoming increasingly difficult - and dangerous-for students to pray together on school campuses; meanwhile, it's easier for a man or woman to obtain a divorce than to escape from an automobile lease agreement. The president of the United States embraces the radical homosexual movement which opposes the legal basis of marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. States are prohibited from protecting innocent children, in the process of being born, from those who would puncture their skulls and suck their brains out. Those who oppose this infanticide are call "extremists" by our political leaders. Federal authorities decline to prosecute hard-core pornographers.

The government spends billions to promote "safe sex" ideology in our schools, and officials hand out condoms and pills to kids who assume they're expected to use them. Laws protecting children from obscenity on the Internet are struck down by justices to protect the right of adults to market obscenity. Video poker machines dot the landscape of a nation that was built on the principles of thrift and deferred gratification. The "entertainment" industry glorifies violence and sexual exploitation while pop music pays tribute to the killing of police and the raping of women. And the list goes on. How much carnage must we witness at our feet before we will raise our eyes to Heaven?

The American people know we are in a moral crisis. According to a poll conducted by Pew Research, eighty percent believe immorality is our greatest problem as a nation.12  But our leaders don't seem to comprehend what is happening.  It's time we all pulled together - Americans of every political party and religious faith - to recover a sense of what God wants us to do for our nation.

Let's begin by giving priority to our children. In days gone by, the culture acted to shield them from harmful images and exploitation. Now it's open season for even the youngest among us. Let's put the welfare of our boys and girls ahead of our own convenience and teach them the difference between right and wrong. They need to hear that God is the author of their rights and liberties. Let's teach them that He loves them and holds them to a high level of moral accountability.

Let's do everything in our power to reverse the blight of violence and lust that has become so pervasive across this land. Let's demand that the entertainment moguls stop producing moral pollutants. Let's recapture from the courts that system of self-rule that traditionally allowed Americans to debate their deepest differences openly and reach workable solutions together. Radical individualism is destroying us! The creed that proclaims, "If it feels good, do it!" has filled too many hospitals with drug overdosed teenagers, too many prison cells with fatherless youth, too many caskets with slain young people, and too many tears for bewildered parents.

Let's vow together today to set for our children the highest standards of ethics and morality and to protect them, as much as possible, from evil and death. America can't be perfect, but it can be better-much better. To surrender to evil is to yield to the despair that leads to death. We must be bold enough to draw a line in the sand. We may have to endure some name-calling, harassment, and lawsuits for it, but as the good people of Jonesboro know, that isn't the worst thing that can happen.

On May 7, America observed what the Congress of the United States has designated as the National Day of Prayer. That emphasis should occur not just once each spring but throughout the year, as we ask the Father to heal our land. We must also pledge ourselves anew to the principles that have made this nation great: hard work, sexual restraint, a commitment to family, a rejection of violence, and reliance upon the hand of Divine Providence.

By this effort we can begin to atone for the blood of the innocents that stains our streets and neighborhoods. We can start to restore the qualities that prompted Abraham Lincoln to call us an "almost chosen people."13

We can approach again the throne of our Father, seek His face, humble ourselves and pray, and know that He will hear from Heaven and heal our land. If you agree, write and let us know. Let's make America a "shining city upon a hill" once more. If we fail, we need not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for our beloved nation.

James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
Focus On The Family

From "They Only Know What You Teach 'Em," Copyright 1998. Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995. All rights reserved. Used by permission.


  1. Sonia Nazari, "Wrong Turn Ends in Deadly Gang Ambush; Violence: Child, 3, Dies. Two Others Hurt as Youths Block Car's Escape from Dead-End Street and Open Fire," Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1995, p. 1A.
  2. David Gibson, "Teens Accused in Death of Baby; Infant Beaten After Delivery," Bergen Record, November 17, 1996, p. A1.
  3. Laurie Goodstein, "Of Birth and Death and the Prom; Three of Life's Landmarks Converge as Teen Delivers, Abandons Baby at Dance," The Washington Post, June 10, 1997, p. A3.
  4. "Pearl, Mississippi School Officials Hold Press Conference Following Shooting Spree by Luke Woodham," CNN, October 2, 1997.
  5. "Michael Carneal Accused of Killing Classmates in Kentucky," CNN, December 2, 1997.
  6. "2 Students Are Shot at Arkansas School," Associated Press, December 16, 1997.
  7. Jay Jordan, "Texas Teen 'Vampires' Go On Rampage," Associated Press, March 6, 1998.
  8. "Police Say Student Attacked Teacher," Associated Press, April 8, 1998.
  9. "Indianapolis Cops to Search Kids," Associated Press, April 8, 1998.
  10. "Teens Accused of Raping Girl," Associated Press, April 12, 1998.
  11. John Schwartz, "2 Boys Charged with Murder; Arkansas Ambush Suspects are Friends, 11 and 13," Washington Post, March 26, 1998, p. A1.
  12. Cheryl Wetzstein,"Polls Find Growing Concern Over 'Moral' Direction," The Washington Times, April 23, 1997, p. A5.
  13. Address to the New Jersey State Senate, Trenton, New Jersey, February 21, 1861.