AS A SOCIETY and as families, we worry about our teen-agers. We ache for them in their trial-and-error efforts to make their way through adolescence.
Sometimes we fear them, especially on dark city streets. We often try to talk to them, especially those dear to us, despite what occasionally seems an unbridgeable cultural divide.
But how often do we really listen when they try to talk to us?
The question arose in Baltimore last week during a national conference sponsored by the Department of Justice's Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. It featured a keynote address by Attorney General Janet Reno, noted for her interest in children's issues, and dozens of informative panels on issues affecting young people or programs that have helped them steer a safe course to adulthood.
But for Detective Tom Morrissey of the New Haven, Conn., police force, something important was missing -- juveniles, the ostensible subject of the gathering.
The two young people he brought to the conference -- members of the city's Board of Young Adult Police Commissioners -- kept looking around and asking, "Where are the kids?" At breaks, as adults were refreshing themselves with coffee and tea, the young commissioners queried, "So, where's the orange juice? We don't drink coffee."
And when Janette Hernandez summoned the courage to ask Ms. Reno what she thought about programs like New Haven's Board of Young Adult Police Commissioners, she got a brief acknowledgement that the board was doing good work, not the longer, detailed answer given adult questioners.
Maybe he's overly sensitive, but Detective Morrissey notes such small details because the young people he advises point them out to him. His work with them has made him all too aware of the tendency of adults to talk about young people, rather than talking to them and listening to what they have to say, even when it's not what we want to hear.
After a long police career during which, he says, "I buried too many kids," he is retiring this month. Burned out? Hardly. He says the best job he ever had was overseeing the young-adult board, part of Chief of Police Nicholas Pastore's ambitious community-policing program.
Return on investment
The board costs the department nothing but Detective Morrissey's time and a few office supplies, but it has made a huge difference in police relations with young people in New Haven. It has also become a route for turning bright, able high school students into strong leaders -- and helped them into some of the country's best colleges and universities.
The two commissioners with Detective Morrissey were high school students elected to represent their schools on the board. They were invited to present the story of the board, which they did with eloquence and enthusiasm.
What has the board accomplished? Twice it has persuaded city authorities not to adopt policies adults favored to crack down on juvenile crime and protect young people. In both cases -- city curfews and metal detectors in the schools -- the commissioners argued that the punitive effect of the policies on innocent youth outweighed whatever good they might do. They pointed out that any kid who wanted to bring a weapon into school could easily circumvent a metal detector.
In short, these were solutions adults thought would improve life for law-abiding young people. Young people themselves saw it quite differently.
By yielding to the objections, city authorities gave up high-profile actions that might look good to voters. But they gained something better -- the trust of young people who felt they were truly being heard, as well as advice from the front lines on the kinds of moves that were more likely to make a difference in the problems.
What did it cost the city? Nothing, except the willingness of adults to listen and, when the arguments are persuasive enough, to agree with them.
And what does the city gain? The cultivation of young leaders who are respected by their peers, who can influence them in positive directions and who have learned that caring about your community brings great rewards.
A recent study from Independent Sector found that the number of American teen-agers engaged in volunteer activities rose 7 percent between 1992 and 1996. Among teen-agers who were asked to volunteer, rates of participation were several times higher than among those not asked to contribute to the community.
Young people are not a "problem" to be solved. They are a valuable resource for our society. We ought to include them in our efforts to make things better.
Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 12/22/96