Teen Killing in Toronto

At the foot of Dmitri Baranovski's bed are some weights, a soccer ball, tennis rackets and - what his stepfather picked up at a garage sale to help him adjust to Canadian life - a football and two hockey sticks.

Teen Killing in Toronto

At the foot of Dmitri Baranovski's bed are some weights, a soccer ball, tennis rackets and - what his stepfather picked up at a garage sale to help him adjust to Canadian life - a football and two hockey sticks. Near his pillow are Halloween candies and a computer, and to help the Ukrainian-born, Israeli-raised boy to perfect his English, a set of classic novels, including A Tale of Two Cities and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. A Toronto Maple Leafs cap sits on a shelf, an award from Northview Heights Secondary School hangs on the wall, but there are no pictures of the 15-year-old who was known to his friends as Matty. His mother, who can be heard sobbing in the next room of the small, two-bedroom highrise apartment, had them removed. The only other sounds come from all-news radio and TV stations as friends and relatives listen for word that Baranovski's killers have been arrested. "He was a typical teen," said his stepfather, Elliot Korczak, stroking a miniature pinscher dog Baranovski had brought on his immigrant's journey to Toronto. "You can see where it happened right from that window."

Police, criminologists and a frightened public are trying to figure out what happened, 14 floors down in a small north Toronto park, on the night of Nov. 14. Around 9 p.m., Baranovski and several friends were sitting at a picnic table when they were accosted by as many as 10 youths wearing bandannas or balaclavas to conceal their identities. The youths had come looking for cigarettes, cannabis and money, said Dmitri, one of Baranovski's friends who was there that night. Baranovski, a tall, gangly boy, one month shy of his 16th birthday, asked the group why they were picking on them. At least two of the intruders responded by kicking him until he lay still - even as friends ran to get help. Despite attempts by emergency workers to help him, he died early the next morning at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Shocking as that brutal death was, it was not an isolated incident. Two days later, a 14-year-old Toronto girl was lured to an apartment building where she was stripped and tortured for two hours by four females. Police have arrested suspects aged 16 to 19 and charged them with forcible confinement, robbery, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon. In June, in Newmarket, Ont., several youths swarmed Jonathan Wamback, 15, and beat him so badly he was left in a coma for five weeks and is only now regaining some of his abilities. Such attacks recall the horrific incident in British Columbia in November, 1997, when a group of girls and one boy viciously set upon and beat 14-year-old Reena Virk. She was later killed. Warren Glowatski was found guilty of second-degree murder last June, and one girl is currently facing trial.

But criminologists attending a convention in Toronto last week were quick to put such attacks in perspective. "The type of violence was aimless, senseless and the victims are often randomly picked, so from a media or public perspective it's frightening, unpredictable and it's vicious," said Raymond Corrado, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. "Nonetheless, it's not that common statistically. The incidents are publicized to such a degree, it creates a sense of moral panic: if it could happen here, people think, it could happen everyday and everywhere, which is not true. You have a far, far higher likelihood of dying from drowning, a car accident or lightning than you do from this type of vicious event."

In fact, the annual tally of murders by youths actually fell last year to 26 (it was 27 in 1997 and 32 in 1996), while overall violence by young people has remained relatively static over the past five years. But it is up from what it was a decade ago, while the prevalence of gangs is also increasing, says Alan Leschied, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Western Ontario. "When you get kids who have fewer ties to things like family and school and church - the conventional ties that kids grew up with in the past - they tend to gravitate to other things to fill that gap," he notes. "Right now, each other is the obvious one, if you want to call that a gang."

Why are some youths so troubled? Criminologists and psychologists say only 10 per cent of teens fall into that category, but for a variety of reasons. Their environments are stress-filled; married parents may both be working long hours in insecure jobs; single parents are struggling to meet all the demands on them; and kids, filling the hours with TV, movies, video games and music videos, are desensitized by the violent world they see on screen or hear in lyrics.

A gang mentality can escalate the nature of the crime, says Debra Pepler, director of York University's LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution. Pepler is completing a study on schoolyard bullying, monitoring the actions of students in Grades 1 to 6, where bullying tactics are refined. Students, she says, should be made aware that passively condoning bullying contributes to the crime. "The group of kids who stand around do things that reinforce the aggressor, that give the aggressor the message that what you're doing is interesting to me," says Pepler. "What we find is the more children who are there, the longer the episodes last. It's like a theatre macabre unfolding - as though there's a show or display going on, and the students around it are promoting it. As excitement grows, and arousal levels go up, the individuals in that setting are less and less able to think rationally about what's going on."

There is no easy solution. Common sense can help: Leschied says parents must be more vigilant about who their children are associating with and where they are hanging out. Pepler suggests more resources have to be plowed back into schools, an ideal place to reinforce good behaviour. She believes in giving principals enough money to treat children with antisocial behaviour in regular classes, rather than putting all troubled children in one class - where they pick up each other's bad habits.

At week's end, no arrests had been made in the Baranovski killing. That was in part because the attackers wore masks - which is typical of youths clinging to a gang culture. But police acknowledged that potential witnesses were probably afraid to come forward for fear of reprisals. Speaking on behalf of Baranovski's mother, Olga, who left Israel in 1998 to escape the shadow of Middle East terrorism, Elliott Korczak said he hoped the attackers lead a long and painful life. But he added that he also wanted some good to come from his stepson's death. Echoing the advice of the experts, Korczak said: "Unfortunately, when we preach to do good, we preach to the converted. We have to reach those kids who aren't listening." And that may be easier said than done.

See also JUVENILE DELINQUENCY.

Maclean's November 29, 1999