HARD LESSONS ABOUT LIFE ON STREETS
Author(s): Scott Goldstein Globe correspondent Date: March 25, 2005
Page: B1 Section: Metro/Region
Three Boston police officers were on their knees, hands behind their heads, as a group of teenagers screamed orders at them, then pretended to put pepper spray in their faces after they were handcuffed.
To the teens playing police yesterday at English High School in Jamaica Plain, the skit showed real life on their streets. "These kids are like war veterans," said John Ortiz , who runs the mediation program at English High and who said a week does not go by without a student telling him about violence in his or her life.
The teens and police gathered in a second-floor classroom just hours after the funeral for 17-year-old Tacary Jones, mourned amid tight security at Morningstar Baptist Church in Mattapan. He was shot to death aboard an MBTA bus in Dorchester a week ago, and 18-year-old Ivan Hodge from Roxbury has been charged with his murder.
Yesterday's role playing was the first of eight sessions, funded by Children's Hospital, that bring together about 30 students with local actors, Boston police, parents, and teachers. The Jamaica Plain Anti-Violence Collaborative was formed last year after Kelly Lee Johnson, then 14, was stabbed at the Jackson Square MBTA Station.
The collaborative is just one of the city's efforts as officials brace for the typically high-crime summer months and hope to avoid a repeat of last year. In 2004, the city recorded 64 homicides, the most in all but one year since 1996. Of the victims, 18 were teenagers, and six were under age 16.
For instance, four to six temporary youth workers will be hired on May 2 to work through the summer, said Robert Lewis Jr., head of the Boston Centers for Youth and Families. They will join 19 youth workers who now work for the city, spending their days mediating conflicts between groups of teens and mentoring at-risk young people in high-crime neighborhoods. Lewis said he is also considering permanently hiring two more youth workers at the start of the new fiscal year in July.
Lewis also recently hired Selvin Chambers, who had run youth programs in Cambridge, to oversee Boston's youth worker program. All of the changes are part of a new program called B-SMART, which brings city agencies together to address crime and quality of life issues.
There was no mention of Friday's shooting during yesterday's program, in which actors from Urban Improv made up scenarios they then discussed with the students and four patrol officers from the district that covers Jamaica Plain. Three male officers sat at a table in the back of the room, and a female officer observed from the doorway in the front.
Asked about the first thought that enters their mind when an officer approaches them on the street, one student quickly replied, "Uh, oh." Another student said, "I try not to look into their eyes."
Lashay Shepard, 18, a junior at West Roxbury High School, donned a police hat sideways as she assisted fellow students in the skit that had the officers playing rowdy teens. Later, she said she enjoyed giving "them a piece of their own medicine."
Kevin Smith, a Brookline native and one of the actors, said that when teenagers are basing their comments on personal experience, the goal is not to change anyone's thinking. "They're preached to every day," he said. "So if we come in there and preach to them, we won't have them for five minutes. . . .They may have an opinion about these cops, but at least they still worked with them."
The session was characterized mostly by good-natured exchanges about police tactics between the officers and the students, most of whom are active in area high school or community organizations. After each skit, the officers explained department policy on how to deal with the situation. For instance, they said, they would not pepper spray someone who was already handcuffed.
The officers also urged the teens to look at things from the police point of view. "How are we supposed to respond?" asked Officer Miguel Montesino, laying out a scenario of a few officers facing a rowdy crowd of 150.
But Shepard said she isn't sure that the officers' comments reflect the average beat cop. "I think they're fake," she said. "I just think they're trying to put on a good show. We already know what they're gonna do."
Still, she said she hopes the officers share the experience with their colleagues.
One of the four officers, Fred Allen, said he plans to discuss the students' enthusiasm and sophistication with his fellow officers. To the repeated suggestions that he and his fellow officers weren't like average cops, he replied, "You're always gonna have your doubters."
Scott Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.