Coming to grips with violence

'Kids have to start taking responsibility for their own actions,' top cop says

Posted: March 04, 2010

MILAN, 10 and her brother Milaj, 7, haven't returned to Finletter Elementary since Feb. 22, when, Milan says, she was jumped by five girls as she walked to pick up her brother from the school's annex.

It's unclear why Milan was attacked. But when their mom arrived, she, too, was assaulted. It began with threats by older school-aged relatives of the children who had attacked Milan, and ended, their mother said, when she was beaten by adult relatives who had been called to the school by a male relative who worked there.

"Both my children are having nightmares," said the mother, Lakia Harris-Nixon, 29, who suffered a concussion in the attack. "My son cries and screams whenever I talk about taking him to school."

Incidents of violence, such as the one at Finletter, in Olney, are a growing concern in schools and on city streets in recent weeks following a number of high-profile cases in which young people have hurt fellow students and or others at schools, in malls and on the street during flash-mob gatherings.

Yesterday, 18 youths were arrested for violent actions at two locations in Center City - this on the heels of media attention over unprovoked attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High in December and teen flash-mob violence on South Street, in the Gallery mall, and in the Center City Macy's store.

Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman acknowledged recently that the violence has reached "epidemic proportions," but said that the school district cannot solve the problem alone, that the issue is a matter that the entire community must address.

"A cycle of violence is taking its toll among young people in our schools, our neighborhoods and across the entire city," she said at a School Reform Commission meeting Feb. 24.

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who also attended the meeting, added, "Violence is a public-health threat in the city, but it's of particular concern when it impacts our young people. Kids have to start taking responsibility for their own actions."

Tonight the Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence at Drexel University will present the second of three "community symposiums" on stopping school-age violence.

The topic is "Bullying Prevention: From the Classroom to the Internet, Keeping Kids Safe."

"Bullying has always been an issue, but now there are more avenues for bullying to take place," said Charles Williams, director of the Drexel center.

"We don't know what kids are getting sent to their Facebook or cell phones," he added.

"And we've had people murdered or people have committed suicide because of cyber-bullying."

Williams said the National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 2007-08, the latest school year for which data is available, "there were 1.5 million incidents of crime and violence against children committed while the youth were in school.

"However, there were 1.1 million incidents of violence and crime children committed outside of school," he added.

Sharifa Garvey, a sophomore at Constitution High School, who heads the anti-violence committee of the school district's City-wide Student Government group and who has been bullied because she speaks with an accent, knows firsthand the problem of violence whether by way of bullying or flash-mob assaults.

"I think that some parents aren't around to guide their children enough to supervise them and know what they're doing," said Garvey, who is from Jamaica.

"They need to monitor their children's time and make sure they're doing something constructive after school instead of doing something that will get themselves in trouble."

Among the solutions to preventing violence, Wiliams said, are programs like mentoring and conflict resolution. But he also said communities need to look at helping parents improve their parenting skills and helping students understand the importance of improving their social skills.

These social skills, Williams said, include things as simple as learning to cooperate with others, asking for help, and offering it.

The skills can prevent frustrations over feeling slighted during an incident in class or the lunchroom from escalating into violence, he said.

The first panel at tonight's forum will include high school students who will address bullying and violence.

"I have been bullied and people used to call me names because of my accent and where I'm from," said Garvey, who will share her experiences.

As for flash-mob violence, DeVante Wilson, a senior at George Washington Carver High who is part of the student government and is active with the Philadelphia Student Union campaign against youth violence, said it makes youth who don't commit violent acts feel ashamed.

And while he said he doesn't know exactly what triggers such violence, Wilson, 17, has some ideas.

"It's frustration by some people who don't have an outlet," he said.

"They don't have activities or they don't know who to talk to at their schools to get help."

Meanwhile, in the incident at Finletter, school district officials said an investigation determined that the initial fight involving Milan "was a mutual fight between two fifth-graders," said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Harris-Nixon disagreed. "Oh, my God! That is not true!" she said. "I would not take it to this level if my child was not the victim. My child was the victim of all of it and they never showed the [security] tapes to city police detectives."

She said her daughter was attacked as she walked across school grounds to pick up her younger brother at an annex building for pupils in kindergarten through second grade.

Milan said she begged a school aide to let her and her brother stay inside to wait for their mother. "But she [the school worker] told them, 'No, you have to go. You can call from the big school,' " Harris-Nixon said.

Finally, another school worker walked the children outside to meet Harris-Nixon. That's when, Harris-Nixon said, she was surrounded by angry seventh- and eighth-grade girls who are related to one of the fifth-graders who had fought Milan, and that they threatened to beat her.

As she began walking on a path to report the incident to the principal, she said, two female relatives of the children who had been called by a young man who worked in Finletter's cafeteria jumped out of a car and knocked her down, beating and kicking her in the head as her children, other children and school police looked on.

Charles Williams, of Drexel's Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence, said the Finletter case illustrates how violence contributes to high dropout rates, especially in cities like Philadelphia, which has a 50 percent or higher rate among African-American and Latino students.

"They feel threatened and that impedes their learning," Williams said.

"It leads to anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, truancy, school failures and dropouts.

"That's why school safety is important, "We can't keep saying to our kids, 'Go to school, and we will keep you safe, if we can.'

"If we can't guarantee a child safety inside of a school, then something is wrong with this society," he said.

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