Teen Violence: A Community Challenge, By: Judith Scherr

Friday March 17, 2006

They scream obscenities at the teacher during class and show up all smiles to chat after school; they defy curfews and curl up in their mothers’ laps; they’re ready to live on their own and can’t make a sandwich; they sleep with boyfriends and play with Barbies; they live on chips and cry over acne. 

They are teenagers and more likely to die from car crashes, homicide or suicide than anything else, according to Dr. Barbara Staggers, who heads adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital and Research Center, Oakland.  

“Homicide and violence in teens is a huge issue,” she says. While teens are physically healthier then they will ever be, “they are dying of things that are preventable.”  

Meleia Willis-Starbuck, 19, Juan Carlos Ramos, 18, Keith Stephens, 24 and Alberto Salvador Villareal-Morales, 15, were lost to violence in recent months. The deaths of the three young people killed in Berkeley and Villareal-Morales, a Berkeley High student murdered in Oakland, have prompted the community to ask how to keep children safe. 

While erratic teen behavior is comprehensible and changes throughout the teenage years, a young teen is unaware of consequences. According to Staggers, “He could shoot someone. He’s thinking of here, now, today. He can’t plan.”  

Teens in the middle range, learning to separate from adults, thrive on conflict. “They have to experiment with life; they’re different people on different days,” she says, noting that being afflicted with AIDS or hooked on heroin can be lifelong consequences of experimental teen behavior. 

At this stage, decision-making skills are key and parent lectures are useless. “Parents have to step back,” Staggers says. Teens listen to peers. For kids on a rocky path, “ex-gang members have more credibility,” Staggers says.  

Berkeley High Security Officer Mark Griffin teaches anger management. He can relate to kids in trouble—he’s been there. In his work, he gives teens a chance to talk about why they are hurting and helps them role-play conflict situations to find a safe way out. 

In late adolescence, teens make conscious decisions, Staggers says. Drug dealing, for example, is no longer experimental, but a conscious choice. Teens may not see other options. What young people need at this stage is to recognize choices. Perhaps a young man carrying a gun does not know how to talk his way out of a situation. “Teach him to talk,” Staggers says, cautioning: teach him in a non-judgmental way. 

Berkeley’s Youth Services Coordinator Phil Harper-Cotton offers options to teens on the edge. Sometimes he drives down Sacramento Street or San Pablo Avenue in the evenings and chats with kids hanging out, letting them know someone cares. He offers a pocket-size card with services—job referrals, drug and alcohol treatment, counseling. He’s offering choices; some respond. 


Teens under stress 

Home and school should be safe places, but sometimes they create stress. For teens of color, race is an often ignored stressor, says Dr. Vicki Alexander, responsible for child and teen health in Berkeley’s Health Department. “There are very clear divisions in wealth in Berkeley; it comes down along racial lines,” with the presence of the university exaggerating the divide, Alexander says. She advocates anti-racist campaigns to change attitudes, equalize opportunities and reduce stress on people of color. 

The recent murders are stressors for local teens, says sociologist Howard Pinderhughes, Berkeley resident and assistant professor at UC San Francisco. Even when teens don’t know the victims, the homicides trigger emotions carried over from other incidents in the teen’s life. They need safe places to talk about what they are feeling, he says, adding: “And they need safe places to hang out.”  


Safe spaces for teens 

But that’s easier said then done. Youth leaders at the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center have tried to create a safe place to party and hit a blank wall, they said last week, sitting around a table at the Walnut Street facility, eating pizza and talking to a reporter. “There’s no place for teens or pre-teens to go,” Molly Bilick, 17, said.  

The group tried putting on dances and had several successful ones. But the popularity grew through text-messaging and word-of-mouth. The second-to-last dance drew 700 teens to the Walnut Street building; neighbors called the police and the fire marshal shut it down. The group was diverse, well behaved; there was no stealing or vandalism, the youths said. 

The last dance was in August. Tickets were sold in advance and only ticketed people could come in. This was a disaster, leaving a large unruly crowd outside.  

The night before meeting with the reporter, the group trekked to the City Council meeting to ask for funding for a teen center, a place for dances and opportunities to learn skills, such as carpentry and cooking. It would have to be in a warehouse, away from homes, they said.  

They’d already asked the city for the use of their gyms, but were turned down. There is no appropriate city venue, said Harper-Cotton in a separate interview. Recreation staff could control the dance, “but we can’t control outside,” he said, explaining that neighbors would complain. 

While Councilmember Darryl Moore and other city officials say a teen center is a good idea, there are no plans to create such a space. 

The city is not without things for teens to do. “Berkeley’s very rich in resources, but you have to be self motivated and a lot of kids aren’t,” said Tricia Brazil, who works in tobacco, drug and violence prevention at Berkeley High. At the school there are more than 30 clubs, plus drama, music and sports programs. In the community there is the Young Adult Project, a city-run center for youth referred by teachers or counselors, Berkeley Youth Alternatives, where young people can get tutoring and take classes such as in music production. There’s Youth Radio and more. 


Kids in trouble 

But, as Dr. Staggers noted, teens experiment and don’t see consequences. They get in trouble with the police. That’s when Detective Sgt. Dave White of the Youth Services Bureau steps in.  

Lately, he’s heard from a growing number of parents. “We’re getting a lot of calls saying that kids are incorrigible—two to three times a day.” Parents don’t know what to do. White refers them to community agencies. 

White says his job is keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system. When teens are picked up for minor crimes, they can be sent to youth court in Oakland. Staffed by teen prosecutors, judges and juries, retributive, rather than punitive justice is delivered: offenders may have to write letters of apology to victims or scrub graffiti off walls. (Berkeley High has recently introduced a youth court as well.) 

Teen offenders might also be required to check in regularly with a police department counselor. 

While the recent homicides are tragic and have shaken nerves throughout the city, teen violence does not appear to be escalating, White said. (Berkeley Police keep no records specific to juvenile crime, according to Ed Galvan, police department spokesperson.) White said juvenile crime trends tend to be about the same as trends for adult violent crime. In Berkeley, violent crime over the last five years has not increased. 

Still, the tragic deaths have been a wake-up call: youth commissioners want to create more opportunities for young teens to learn conflict resolution strategies; youth violence was the focus of an Albany High meeting last week and will be the focus of a Berkeley High workshop Thursday.