Baltimore kids tell forum on juvenile justice why they have given up on going to school

The Baltimore Sun

It was the last in a series of forums to find ways to improve Baltimore's juvenile justice system - in other words, get kids to stop killing other kids - and participants broke into groups to come up with ideas.

Western High School's Chante Bonner, 16, told the school system's police chief: "We have one officer and she is always in the office or sitting somewhere."

On the other side of the auditorium at the University of Maryland's biotech park, Jonathan Hanna, 17, told a top city schools official and the city's top prosecutor that he had stopped showing up at New Era Academy just six months shy of graduation.

"I don't know why I'm not interested in coming to school every day," he told Patricia C. Jessamy, the state's attorney, and Jonathan T. Brice, director of student support for the school system. "The teachers aren't as engaging as they once were. My days are gray, not bright."

Christian Bailey, 17, who also attends New Era, agreed with Chante about police and later added his thoughts about truancy.

"School is important, but sometimes what we learn is not important," he said about a class he's taking on the Middle East. "I don't think it's important for my future."

Brice implored - "Even with the Gaza Strip, Iraq and Iran?"

Jessamy concluded: "We have to reassess how we sell schools to our kids."

The forums on juvenile issues raised many questions and got parents in the same room with both troubled and promising kids; with police officers and social workers; with the secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Services, Donald W. DeVore; and with Jessamy.

The theme at last week's meeting: "Community Engagement: Ideas for the Future."

Christian is part of a group called Community Law in Action, which prepares children to be leaders. He was dragged there many months ago by a friend who promised him free pizza, and he never left. After he was born, his brother "blessed" him into the Bloods gang. Christian told us he grew up fighting to prove he was worthy of the violent organization, but he got out after a person he had beaten up burned down his house.

It matters that Christian wants to learn but doesn't relate to the material.

It matters that young Jonathan has lost interest in school so close to finishing.

It matters that the police officer assigned to Chante's school doesn't seem to do her job.

Kids don't go to school for a variety of reasons. Yes, some deal drugs instead of studying books. But others have to cross gang turf and deem the trip too dangerous, or have to work to support a broken family, or can't afford lunch, or feel a disconnect between teacher and student, or simply don't care.

It matters because, as DeVore said in his opening remarks, "If a child is not in school, good things are not going to happen."

DeVore said that when he arrived here two years ago, he was "dismayed to see how frequent it was that a child would be killed" and equally dismayed to discover that many had been or were under state care. He talked about new and improved partnerships with city police to identify at-risk children, about monitoring kids in his charge with satellite tracking devices, about expanded curfew patrols.

"There is a fine line between a youth who kills and a youth who gets killed," DeVore said.

Last year, city police say, the average murder suspect had been arrested 10 times before being locked up for a slaying. The average victim had been arrested 10 times before being killed.

The latest burst of violence - 11 killings in seven days - forced Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III to face a tired city on Thursday.

He noted that his cops yanked 87 guns off city streets - in the first seven days of 2009.

That's a walking arsenal.

"There was a man on downtown Water Street just a couple nights ago whose car window had been broken out," the commissioner said. "He was jumping up and down yelling about the fact his car was broken into. As he was jumping up and down, a gun fell out of his waistband."

Bealefeld, as he has done in the past, as his predecessors have done in the past, as his predecessors' predecessors have done in the past, pleaded for help from a seemingly indifferent community.

"It can't just be the mayor and the police commissioner standing up and trying to engage people's morality about violence in this city," he said. "We need everybody to step up and do their part, and if they support what we're saying about handgun enforcement and bad guys with guns, they need to make phone calls to their elected officials and say, 'Doggone it, we support these guys, and give them the help they need.' "

So let's try and find a way to keep Chante safe in her school, and keep Jonathan in his school, and keep Christian interested in his school.

That might be three more lives saved this year.

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