The Unusual Suspect

A boy of 15. Apparently this was the mysterious killer who stabbed attorney Anat Pliner to death two years ago. After her murder, the boy was arrested three times - on suspicion of stealing a helmet, throwing stones and stealing a motorcycle. Friends described him as "a guy who breaks into places," "poison" and "a petty criminal."

Why, then, were there no warning lights blinking among those responsible for dealing with youth at risk? And who was even meant to notice the warning signs? Had someone seen and heard, would it have been possible to prevent the killing? Can proper attention prevent the next murder of an innocent? The police, the education system and the Social Affairs Ministry - the main bodies dealing with violence among youth - bear a difficult burden.

First identification

The education system should attempt to identify early signs of a potentially serious problem. However, Hava Friedman, the Education's Ministry's chief psychologist, says identifying the signs is only the first stage in dealing with violence.

For example, school absences may reflect illness or be the first signs of someone on the way to dropping out. Maybe the homeroom teacher should be in contact with the parents and involve counselors or psychologists and find out if bullying is involved. Friedman cautions: "The burden of inquiry thrust on teachers today is a very heavy one."

Later, a guidance counselor may become involved and consider involving welfare officials or organizing class or school-wide activities. Is there a need for monitoring a "problematic" student, and what are ramifications for the child (maybe involving the parents, punishments and others)?

Friedman stresses that in clarifying and treating the situation, the school need not become an investigations bureau. The teaching staff, to the best of its ability, must set clear boundaries and locate the problem behind the student's behavior. This combination is crucial, she says, "because the school must function as an educational institution for the pupil and not push him away the moment he doesn't meet behavioral or academic standards. Otherwise, he will drop out."

There is also a shortage of professionals. The latest state comptroller's report to deal with the subject, in 2006, noted there were no job slots for guidance counselors and early childhood psychologists in approximately 50 percent of elementary schools and 10 percent of junior-high schools. Moreover, the posts go from nursery school to junior high, in the belief it is better to identify and treat "non-normative" children as early as possible. Even if this approach is right (though various researchers argue that adolescence accelerates and empowers at-risk behaviors), the shortage of positions means counselors and psychologists are likely to offer only partial help. The comptroller states: "Over the last decade, the education system worked to reduce the incidence of violence and improve the educational climate in schools. This goal was not achieved."

Welfare troubles

The various Social Affairs Ministry departments enter the picture when there is a physical or emotional threat, drug and alcohol addiction and a descent into violence and crime. Schools, friends, social workers and others make referrals to the ministry.

The youth suspected of killing Pliner did not fit the profile of the usual social cases handled by the ministry nor match the rubric of "youth at risk." He was not known to be the victim of abuse, comes from a financially secure family with two employed parents and the murder was apparently his first violent crime.

But the ministry acts only on reports from external sources. Its ability to identify youth at risk is quite limited, and the ministry faces a severe shortage of social workers and other personnel.

Only after a minor commits a crime and has a file opened with the police, does the ministry involve the Probation Service. The Pliner case suspect was known to it, but he entered the system for unrelated property crimes committed after the murder. Each year, the Probation Service deals with some 20,000 youthful lawbreakers, reviewing their background and considering the likelihood of their committing another offense. The probation officers make recommendations to the police. If they believe there is little chance the youth will stumble again, they may recommend closing a file. This happens only in 20 percent of the cases, says Rachel Sharvit, who heads the ministry's Youth Probation Service

When a probation officer believes a youth is highly likely to commit another crime and the surrounding environment is conducive to this, treatment is recommended. Probation officers may report to judges to help them make decisions regarding the youth's detention and sentencing. Such reports include an evaluation of the level of threat the youth poses and of the chances treatment will help. When a probation officer feels treatment alone will not help, he recommends jail time or sending the youth to a closed facility. Each year the probation office treats 3,500 youths in community rehabilitation programs plus additional 900 or so in boarding schools or closed facilities.

Police focus: knifings

The police see on average 10 cases of murder committed by minors each year. Nearly all involve stabbings during a squabble, usually between two gangs. Almost always boys are involved, not girls, and the reason given for the killing almost always is "honor" - something said, a look or a fight over a girl.

The way the Pliner murder was carried out "surprised us," says Superintendent Isaac Simon, the Israel National Police Youth Department's officer for consultation and legislation. But not the fact that the suspect is a minor: "Every year we have a few cases like this," says Simon.

The overwhelming majority of youth violence happens between gangs or at entertainment spots, which is where the police invest its efforts and focuses on youth who carry knives. "Most youth murders are not premeditated," says Simon, "but the result of a provocation or something that happened where there are lots of youths - and that's where we operate."

Each weekend, the police detain dozens of youths carrying knives when they go out at night. "Our battle is to prevent the carrying of a knife so it won't be there in a momentary outburst and loss of control," says Simon.

It is very hard to identify "criminal potential" among loners and those who go unidentified as problem cases, say police. The police do invest in school information campaigns "in order to reach everyone."

Simon says: "I'm not sure that it is the culture that characterizes all youth. Some will say a youth came from a knife-carrying culture - and some will counter that he lacked nothing and acted out of boredom. I can say that our knowledge shows young criminals are found in every layer of the population and in every socioeconomic cross-section."