Working With Young People To Make Their Lives Safer

It could be a child's most basic need today: to feel safe in a world where caution is the watchword. The threat of violence sits high on the list of concerns both for kids in the suburbs and those negotiating the tough streets of the inner city.

For Jos De Jesus, growing up in Philadelphia's troubled inner city, safety did not exist in word or concept. His reality was gangs and dangerous streets.

"When all you know is danger, then you don't know about safety. You hang out with squads, smoking weed, using drugs," he says of street life. "You think it's normal, because that's all you know. Then you leave Philly, and come back, and wow! You say, 'Get me outta here!'"

Mr. De Jesus is out of Philly now, living in Lowell, Mass., with a wife and baby. "It's boring," he says with a laugh, "but it's safe, and I'm starting my life over."

Although he spent some time in juvenile detention, De Jesus did not become another numbing violence statistic - the kind that are causing concern across the country:

*Children 19 and under are killed with guns at the rate of 15 a day in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

*The number of juveniles murdered in 1994 was 47 percent greater than in 1980, while overall murders rose only 1 percent during that period, according to the Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy.

*The majority of juvenile violent crimes are committed between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Three out of 10 homicides by juveniles are killings of other children.

*Children ages 12 to 17 are five times more likely to be murder victims than adults older than 35.

Behind these statistics lie complex social and economic issues that have persisted for years. Experts disagree over the causes of youth violence and whether or not solutions will come from harsher penalties or increased attempts at early education and prevention.

Some believe the key contributing factor is the inability of some families to provide their children with steady love and clear values. In addition, critics charge the media with distorting the prevalence of violence through sensationalized reporting. And violent TV and movies are blamed for influencing teen behavior.

But despite differences over the causes, parents, educators, community groups, and legislators are devoting increasing attention to stemming violence and fear in children's lives.

Beginning today, the Monitor will examine effective, grass-roots actions young people and adults can take. Signs of progress abound: Children are learning to deal with provocation without getting into fights; schools are getting rid of guns; churches and communities are working to stem drug use and help young people spend their after-school hours productively; and families are working together to provide a safe environment in their neighborhoods.

Moving beyond legislative efforts, adults are recognizing the need for community and individual initiative - and are taking action to keep children out of harm's way.

Beyond the controversy over the sources of violence are the individual, daily experiences of youths. The great majority of children and young people today, regardless of their home address, have not been shot, abused, or joined gangs. Of all crimes in the US over the last few years, only 13 percent were committed by teens. And of the 1,268 murders of children under 18 in l994, about 70 percent were committed by adults, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report.

But the prevalence of violence in or near young lives, or their fear of violence, is now the common denominator, despite new figures showing that violent crime has dropped for the second year in a row. Violent incidents simply occur today in a greater number of public locations - including schools, long considered a place of refuge and safety.

In the book "Children in Danger"(Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco), lead author James Garbarino writes about one boy desperately wanting to be safe. Living in Boston's inner city, the boy kept an empty deodorant bottle by his bed because the bottle said, "guaranteed 100 percent safe."

But other young people respond by inuring themselves to violence, trying to shut it out while remaining dubious about their ability to eradicate its presence.

"You can't help but be desensitized by violence," says Mai Diggs, a teenager from Brockton, Mass., who has a summer job in Boston with the Boston Initiative for Teen Pregnancy Prevention. "If you weren't desensitized, you would be jumping every second," she says. "I don't even try to feel safe, because once you do, something happens. But I'm watchful because you can't be dumb. Being safe means not having to be on duty."

For Chanel Barboza-Owens, a teen living on her own in Boston's Jamaica Plain area, and also working for the Boston Initiative, violence has never been far away.

"A couple of my friends have died from shootings," she says. "It's normal. This is a big city, and this is how people react. I feel like it is so common that now you take it as it comes to you, and you just keep moving on, one step at a time."

Outside the inner city, the threat of violence is often less immediate. In Brighton, 11-year-old Ronald Chow says violence isn't a problem in his school.

"But kids learn fast," he says, "and sometimes they can't stop if they get involved in violence. It's like trying to cheat on a test. The first time someone tries it, it's hard. The second time is easier."

It is at such junctions that concerned adults can exercise a powerful and positive influence in educating young children about right and wrong - a factor increasingly reflected in the calls for more grass-roots involvement and caring on the part of adults.

Three adults made a difference for Jasmine Johnson, a self-described troublemaker in elementary school in Boston.

"I was always fighting, and my principal and a program director finally opened me up, made me ask myself, 'What am I doing?' And my mom is my role model now because she went through so much."

But moral suasion has been accompanied by more somber efforts to discourage disruptiveness and violence. Many schools have become fortresses, with metal detectors, security guards, and drug-sniffing dogs. Strict rules for everything from clothing to gum are used.

But too often, in the well-intentioned attempt to create safety, the efforts are top-down, with no student involvement in decisions. The result is often a message that teachers and administrators are afraid of students.

"A lot of the schools, teachers, and administrators we deal with," says Lori Frantz-Kannally, program director of Youth to Youth in Columbus, Ohio, "are finding out that to be successful in any of their school activities, they need to set up something like substance-free policies to help make the environment safe for kids, but also to let youths take leadership roles, to empower them to lead things. You have to listen to them."

Betty Ann Good agrees. After 10 years as president of Youth Crime Watch of America in Miami, she has concluded that security guards and metal detectors don't necessarily make a make school safe.

Instead, the more that youths are encouraged to invest their ideas in programs, the more a school benefits.

"It is the atmosphere of the school," she says, "and whether or not the student's fears and concerns are being addressed. The young people are the most vulnerable, and they feel they don't have the power to change things."

Youth Crime Watch has helped create youth-led programs in 16 states that help free schools of crime and drugs.

"First, students identify what the problems are, and then they work to solve the problems," says Ms. Good. "They organize with student patrols and report crime, because it is the right thing to do."

Students on the patrol have been trained in conflict resolution and mentoring. "A safe school is one where the students have a great deal of school spirit because they know they have made a difference," Good says. "More than anyone else, they want to make the changes."

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