On a crisp Saturday in the basement of a Queens Village church, about 50 people gathered to discuss what many see as an increasing problem in Queens: youth violence.
Barbara Brown, the chairwoman of the Eastern Queens Alliance, whose mission is “the maximization of quality of life in Southeast Queens,” began the discussion with some stark figures.
Youth violence is the second leading cause of death among Americans 10 to 24 years old, she said. Emergency rooms treated over 656,000 physical assault injuries in 2008; and over 5,700 people in that age bracket were murdered in 2007 - an average of 16 each day.
Youth violence has been raising across the country,” Brown added. “Thats why the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] describes it as a public health issue.”
But, youth violence is not a modern problem. Brown also noted that a majority of crime committed in the past two centuries has been committed by youths between the ages of 12 and 25.
Even Shakespeare, who died almost 400 years ago lamented about youthful transgressions in “The Winter’s Tale.”
He wrote, “I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting”
Held at the Hollis Avenue Congregational Church, Saturday’s event was entitled “Youth Violence: Are We Afraid of Our Own Children?” and was billed as a “neighborhood conversation about life in Southeast Queens.”
One panelist was Rebecca Rivera-Maestre, an assistant professor of social work at York College who works with at-risk girls. She made the point that some acting out and boundary testing is natural.
“Young people are going to be involved in risk behavior,” Rivera-Maestre said. “It’s part of their development.”
Some students who attend Jamaica and other Queens high schools didn’t necessarily agree that there has been a recent uptick in violence. They said they believe it is a serious issue in their communities and schools - but that it’s been on going.
One student said that it’s been two years since he’s seen a fight, and he believes metal detectors have been helpful in keeping weapons out of schools. That’s important because, as Brown pointed out, a 2009 survey found that 6 percent of high school students reported taking a gun, club or knife to school within the past 30 days of being asked.
But the same student mentioned that he’d been robbed at gunpoint and had an acquaintance who was paralyzed after being stabbed on the way home from a party.
According to Brown, this is a problem. She doesn’t want children to perceive violence as just another issue they have to contend with.
“If they don’t sense that there is an increase ... then one needs to really talk to youth further,” Brown said. “Have they perceived a high percentage of violence all along? Do they feel safe? Those are the kind of questions that need to be pursued with youth. If you just talk to adults, adults think it’s on the rise, especially with those rapes that took place in Springfield Gardens and Rosedale this past summer. From the adult perspective that kind of behavior is alarming and seems to be happening more repetitiously. The question is: What do you really perceive about the level of violence?”
Rivera-Maestre agreed. She believes one of the most important things adults can do is listen, a simple act that she says is too often forgotten and overlooked.
“Girls feel like they have to fight for respect and status,” she said, “to survive on the streets and for friendship and loyalty.”
The one thing everyone agreed on was that parents play a crucial role how children develop.
Trevor Alexander, who works to bring absent fathers back into their children’s lives, stressed the importance of parents - fathers in particular - in childhood development. He said absent and neglectful parents are one of the root causes of disruptive, violent and other anti-social behavior in children.
“An angry child feels entitled to their anger,” Alexander said. “They become hardened.”
Simone-Marie Meeks, the wife of Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) agreed. She said that above all, parents and average citizens need to look to themselves for solutions.
The situation won’t improve “until everyone isn’t looking towards government to be the solution - it’s a problem,” she said. “Until that changes, this can’t change.”
For more information on upcoming community discussions visit easternqueensalliance.org.