Peer Pressure Fatal Linked To Teen's Murder In Mt. Airy

Posted: July 15, 1986

``I was shocked . . . because he wasn't a bad mouth," says Michael Richardson Jr. He is referring to Brian Penn, the Mount Airy boy fatally shot on the corner of Vernon Road and Fayette Street last week.

Michael and Brian, both 15, went to the same school. They were friends. They lived on the same street, the 7900 block of Fayette Street.

It is a long, densely populated block, with lots of children, including teenage boys who hang out on the corner of Fayette St. and Vernon Road.

Brian Penn lived close to The Corner. He was gunned down there, running home for cover.

Michael Richardson's house is at the far end of the block, away from The Corner. He has never hung out there; his parents, Michael and Roxanne Richardson, will not allow it.

"We scrutinize his associates, we find out how they feel about life," declares Roxanne Richardson. "We have them come visit here, where we can control the situation."

The issue of control is central to the tragic case of Brian Penn - and at the heart of the neighborhood's reaction to his death.

News reports have been painting a picture of the neighborhood as "leafy" and "tree-lined" and "middle class" - the kind of place where such things don't happen.

Much discussion has surrounded the semantic question of whether Brian and his assailants were involved in "gang warfare," or an isolated sequence of events - a "typical"teenage fist-fight that got out of hand.

While the sensitivities of the neighborhood are complicated - and understandable - the facts are painful, but simple.

A week ago, a 15-year-old child was shot to death in front of his house. His alleged assailants are boys, too - 17 and 18.

The conflict had to do with tresspassing on turf and revenge for a fight - the sort of scenario that prompts kids to band together for protection as well as excitement, so they can control their environment, by exerting peer group control over each other, and anyone who challenges their authority.

Peer pressure, say Roxanne and Michael Richardson, is the weapon that killed Brian Penn, and the evil from which they want to protect their children.

Bennie Swanns Jr., executive director of the Crisis Intervention Network, agrees that peer pressure is at the heart of gang activity.

Gangs are peer groups that accept kids as they are, he says, and relieves them of the pressure to be tough and macho - a pressure that intensifies in neighborhoods with many of adolescents, with too much idle time.

Michael Richardson Sr. and other parents on the block acknowledge the idle time problem, and another. "In the last ten years, there haven't been enough men (on the block) to run an effective Town Watch effort," he says,

recalling that boys used to scatter and run home when adult men went on nightly patrols.

"We now have single-parent homes that lack male supervision."

Others lack supervision altogether because single parents almost always work. That means kids with housekeys and too much freedom.

Eleanor Tilden says she "worked a job she hated for 16 years" in order to be home when her kids left for school and returned. "I look out and kids are out there at 2 in the morning, and I say 'Where are their parents?' "

Brian Penn's murder has shaken the status quo. Young children still play freely out of doors, Tilden says, but teenagers don't hang out now, and "at dusk everybody disappears."

Fear rivals peer group pressure.

But there is another way.

With alarm over the idea of a gang problem dying down, Crisis Intervention Network counselors have invited Fayette Street neighbors to a meeting tonight at a neighborhood church, to talk about how the neighbors can respond appropriately and protect their young.

Part of the answer has to do with giving one's children guidance and structure and rules - and alternatives to gang activity.

"Parents are not running a popularity contest," Bennie Swanns says. ''Make sure your kids respect you, even if they don't like you."

Michael Richardson never liked his parents' rule about staying off The Corner, but now, he understands. Of his parents' tough love, he says, "I am thankful for it."

Thankful, even though the guys call him "a nerd" when he walks by them on The Corner.

That can't be easy. Anyone who has survived adolescence knows the agony of ridicule by peers. The courage to resist the pressure to conform is rare, especially in adolescents.

Vigilant parents and the slow process of growing up are often the only real antidotes.

And while neighbors agree that Brian Penn's folks were loving and responsible, the horror of what happened to their son on The Corner last week is certain to inspire caring parents to be more vigilant than ever.

And for Michael Richardson and all the children on the 7900 block of Fayette Street, watching a young friend die violently and needlessly is a sad but effective prescription for growing up - fast.

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