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Madness and mayhem

My head is still spinning after hearing about the tragic April 14 shooting at John McDonogh Senior High School that left one boy dead and four female students in need of medical attendion.

In spite of all the violence I see on the evening news and read about in the newspaper, I can't believe that several young brothers rolled up into John McDonogh in broad daylight and started blasting teenagers with an AK-47 and a 9mm handgun like it was open season on high school students.

Witnesses said several gunmen confronted 15-year-old Jonathan "Caveman" Williams as he sat in the John McDonogh gym bleachers on April 14 with his classmates. In addition to murdering Williams, who was shot repeatedly in the head and body, three girls were wounded in the melee and a fourth pregnant girl was trampled by frantic students trying to escape the gunfire.

While police investigated claims that the fatal shooting was retaliation for another one a week earlier that left Hilliard "Head" Smith, an 18-year-old student at Joseph S. Clark High School, dead, other rumors suggest that the April 14 shooting may have been the result of Williams bragging about shooting Smith several years earlier.

In all, eight people have been arrested in the shootings.

Police believe the gunmen were aided by students who used cell phones to direct them to Willams and convinced the victim to sit near a door in the McDonogh gymnasium. Imagine the terror in the minds of the students as these teenage assassins burst into the gym with guns and an assault rifle blazing.

The New Orleans high school students are dealing with today is nothing like the city was when I came of age.

In many ways, they have it better. Today's youth can take advantage of the Internet to research school assignments and other forms of technology to assist them in the learning process. They have the privilege of coming of age in the Information Age, an exciting time to be young and in school.

But they must also contend with greater peer pressure ---particularly the negative variety---and a host of societal ills like substance abuse, AIDS, illiteracy, homelessness, teen pregnancy and physical abuse that have gotten worse over the past two decades.

And young people in New Orleans are often less-equipped than we were to deal with these problems because they often were brought into the world by teenage parents with limited problem-solving skills and very little experience in navigating life's sometimes turbulent waters.

When I was a student at McDonogh 35 in the 1980s, one of my classmates, Aaron Richardson, was robbed of his leather jacket as he left the campus one evening. I remember it as clearly as though it happened yesterday, and not only because I consider Aaron a friend. I remember that assault vividly because it was not the norm. Last week I spoke with a former classmate, Alton James Jr., who also remembers that incident for the same reason.

We were blessed to go to a school that didn't tolerate violence and other disruptive actions. They simply were not having it.

Were the administrators and teachers at '35 not adamant about making McDonogh 35 a safe learning environment, the school could have been a war zone because nearly every ward in New Orleans was represented in the student body. But, as Alton and I recalled last week, you could have counted the number of fights at the school during our four years on one hand. Two or three, if I remember correctly. And most of those fights involved girls.

I am an avid believer in the notion that high expectations from young people yield high returns. There were certainly some students at '35 who were rough around the edges and let you know that they would not hesitate to defend themselves. But they knew they would be booted out of school in New York minute if they got into a fight, and apparently staying in school and getting a good education was important.

I remember this one cat I graduated with who was as smart as a whip, particularly in math and science. But he was also what some might call a roughneck. Every Monday he would return to school with stories about how him and his boys, mostly from the 3rd Ward, got into a scuffle with cats from the 17th or 9th Ward. I remember shaking my head in disbelief as he talked about these fights as though they were as natural as waiting on a school bus or getting a haircut. But the thing is, no one ever died from any of these fights.

I can also recall traveling across the Mississippi River with several of my boys to go to dances at O. Perry Walker High School (The grass was greener and the young ladies appeared to be finer on the other side). On a couple of occasions, we got into it with some West Bank cats who didn't appreciate us encroaching on their territory.Words were exchanged and punches were thrown, but nobody ever died. We actually ended up respecting one another and becoming friends in a number of cases. I still run into some of those brothers from time to time and I'm always glad to see them.

Veteran community activist Dyan French Cole described to me several years ago how dangerous it is for Joseph S. Clark High School students to be forced to attend school in Central City, in a neighborhood with whom they have had beef for decades. Imagine walking through a war zone to get to and from school every day with your school uniform serving as a bull's eye on your back. That might not mean much to the average adult or school official, but it's hard to think about learning when you're constantly worrying about being jumped or gunned down.

On a number of occasions, I have seen high schools students jumping others from rival high schools and neighborhoods on Canal Street before and after school. On one occasion, more than a dozen boys were seen chasing a single kid near the Saenger Theater. They might have done him bodily harm if they had caught up with him, but he outran them and boarded a bus on Rampart St. ( I don't think Jesse Owens could have caught the brother that day...) No one should have to run for their lives to get an education.

Today, crime and violence are accepted as normal, everyday occurrences by far too many of today's youth. And it's not completely their fault. They take their cues from the grown-ups in their lives. Their parents, ministers, teachers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and neighbors.

Almost every day, you can turn on the evening news and hear about somebody being gunned down on the streets of New Orleans. But these murders seldom get the media coverage and sensationalism that the John McDonogh slaying received.

One of the telltale signs that many of us have accepted the scourge of violence and bloodshed in New Orleans is the blooming of T-shirt businesses that commemorate the deaths of young murder victims. It's apparently big business for young urban entrepreneurs to sell T-shirts and other mementos that pay tribute to fallen "street soldiers." It's impossible to go anywhere in New Orleans and not see these T-shirts. Young people wear these T-shirts like we used to wear family reunion and senior class T-shirts back in the gap.

Each of us must share the blame for what happened at John McDonogh and what is happening at many of the city's other public and parochial schools. We are standing idly by and watching a generation of young people murder one another.

I found it interesting that some parents reacted so strongly to the slaying at John McDonogh when all too often members of the community have little to say about the violence that engulfs all of New Orleans. To expect the city's schools to be any safer than the communities in which its students are raised is at best unrealistic.

Children are violent because adults often resort to violence to settle disputes. Children are violent because they live in a society where they are taught that might makes right and violence is a viable alternative. Too many of the city's children literally grow up with violence just outside their homes, standing outside as police investigate neighborhood homicides and learning to hit the floor when the sound of guns pierce the silence of the night.

The John McDonogh incident is but the latest in a series of examples of how young people of all races, socioeconomic backgrounds and creeds are out of control. While Columbine received the greatest media attention, just last week there was another school shooting in Philly that left two people dead. The problem isn't going to go away unless we address it head-on.

All the security guards and metal detectors in the world can't do away with the disillusionment, alienation and violence in the hearts of far too many young people. They are angry because they have been let down by the people whose divine mission it is to guide them on the path to adulthood. They are angry because they are often ignored and neglected by their parents, teachers and ministers. They are angry and scared and frustrated and alienated.

While teaching conflict resolution to teenagers is commendable, we need to also see to it that adults learn to settle disputes amicably. And that we do a better job of loving, teaching, nurturing, raising, correcting, disciplining and protecting all children.

One of the things that occurred to me last week is that many of the youth who turn to crime and violence are not unlike John Lee Malvo, the impressionable teen who gained infamy as one of the DC snipers who terrorized the Washington, D.C.-Maryland area last fall. Like Malvo, many of this community's most troubled youth come from families whose living situations are less than ideal. They are often left to fend for themselves by adults who have no business bringing children into the world without a plan for raising them into God-fearing, productive human beings.

Youths who have been let down by family members, teachers and ministers are often prime targets for negative peer pressure. Studies have shown that many teens and pre-teens who join organized street gangs do so out of a desire to belong to something or someone, to be a part of something that gives them a sense of belonging and self-worth. Belonging is important to young people, whether it be a cult, gang or a loosely knit group of juvenile delinquents. It is telling that a dysfunctional family that commits violent crimes is more inviting to some young people than the ones into which they were born.

The bloody scene at John McDonogh on April 14 is reminiscent of the film Boyz N The Hood, in which Dough Boy kills the gang members who killed his brother Ricky, only to be murdered by his victims' friends several weeks later. I never thought I'd see the day when that reality would occur so routinely in New Orleans. But here we are.

I used to jokingly tell people that cats in New Orleans didn't have the time or inclination to join organized gangs like the Crips and Bloods. That takes a little too much energy and effort, I reasoned. As long as you didn't mess with a brother's old lady, his car or his weed, you could be reasonably sure that he would pull out a glock and start blasting you.

But now we have teenage girls being stabbed to death in neighborhood family feuds, pre-teens being blasted by grown men whose teenage girlfriends were disrespected by teenage boys, playground coaches being murdered in the presence of their young football players, kids being stabbed to death by their mothers' boyfriends in front of churches, pre-teens being chased and gunned down outside the Louisiana Superdome, etc. If these aren't the last days, I don't want to be around when they arrive.

Our job as members of the community is to make certain all young people belong to something that is positive and productive, families, schools, congregations and communities that appreciate and encourage them to develop to their full potential. And that they are safe. That means encouraging them to play organized sports and to pursue other interests like music, drama, chess, painting, creative writing, etc. Whatever it takes to keep them busy and too tired to get into mischief. It also means providing them with structure and a sense of purpose and accomplishment, giving them something to take pride in. An idle mind really is the devil's workshop.

Our children need to be reminded daily that we expect nothing from them but excellence inside and outside of the classroom. We also need to show them that we love them unconditionally and are willing to do everything in our power to help them reach their goals.

As we work to put prayer back into the nation's schools, we also need to put love and parenting and responsibility and accountability back into homes across the U.S.

We should not expect the police to make communities less violent. The most we can expect from law enforcement agencies is that they move quickly to arrest those who have committed violent crimes.

Each of us has a responsibility to do everything in our power to make communities safer and less violent. That includes getting involved in the lives of young people before they run afoul of the law and letting them know we won't abandon them when and if they stumble. That means finding small ways to show them we love and appreciate them every day. And recognizing and acknowledging the many young people who routinely do the right thing despite overwhelming obstacles. At the very least, we owe them that.


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