“You want to know what ‘WKG’ stands for?” said Dilson Mejia, a short, dark-haired seventh grader at Fairhill School.
A classmate yanked on his gray hooded sweatshirt to quiet him.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
A few members of the small group of middle-schoolers continued on their way, some shouting “WKG, respect me” and laughing as they left.
“I’ll tell you about violence,” said a student with a short mohawk standing close by. “It’s crazy around here. People fight over everything.”
Laughing, seventh grader Joel Montanez claimed that he and his friends get in trouble all the time because they hang out with the wrong people. But he added, more seriously, that fights happen over “stupid things.”
“A girl will call another girl a name, so we stick up for her and it just turns into a big riot,” he said. “Sometimes boys fight because they’ll say you’re gay or something. People call people out on walls, and then they just start fighting.”
The Philadelphia School District is no stranger to youth violence. In February 2010, the Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who assumed duties in June 2008. Ackerman referred to youth violence as a public heath issue and vowed to “come up with a strategy” to help curb youth violence. Ackerman said that last year, there were approximately 15,000 violent and nonviolent incidents in Philadelphia’s public schools.
So-called “flash mobs” have terrorized Philadelphia in recent months.
Most recently on March 20, hundreds of teenagers gathered on South Street, stretched between Penn’s Landing and Broad Street after being summoned via Facebook and Twitter. The teenagers assaulted pedestrians, attempted to damage storefronts, and fought among each other.
A 12-year-old girl was charged with aggravated assault for attacking a 42-year-old woman in March, in a game youths refer to as “Catch and Wreck.” Children as young as 9 years old gather and attack people they believe are homeless.
Violence anywhere and everywhere is a dangerous epidemic. It’s no different in Fairhill.
Over 50 percent of Fairhill’s population is Latino, according to the 2010 Census. Much of the youth violence in Fairhill affects Latino youth.
Juana Soto said she isn’t sure why there aren’t more people helping to keep kids off the streets, but that a lack of funding in a “bad” neighborhood like Fairhill may not be coincidental.
“I don’t know if it’s because of the neighborhood,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like [government officials] don’t want to put out a helping hand.”
Soto works part-time as a safety monitor for Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a human services agency that provides services in education, employment, family support and health issues. As a safety monitor, Soto helps to overlook North Star, an afterschool program that provides tutoring and allows students to participate in drama, dance and recreation activities, among others.
“We found that the best measure to take is to be preventive, to be proactive,” said Amber Wilcoxson, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Fairhill. “There are a lot of programs that the School District of Philadelphia in particular has allocated money for so that we have teachers that will stay after school and spearhead some of these programs.”
Wilcoxson said it is important for students to have programs to turn to, and that they need the proper funding to continue.
“We have very intelligent, articulate, creative, inspiring youth – sometimes, they’re bored,” said Dr. Chuck Williams, the director at the Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence at Drexel University.
Williams said the lack of funding is a huge issue in preventing youth violence.
“In the state of Pennsylvania this year, we’re spending two billion dollars on prisons, but we cut programs like ‘Don’t Fall Down in the Hood,’” he said.
“Don’t Fall Down in the Hood” is a juvenile violence intervention program operated by the Institute for the Development of African-American Youth, Inc.
“Two grand a year for youth– to service them– as compared to some programs that are 10 to 20,000 dollars a year for detention and other after-the-fact measures,” he said. “We have to look at prevention, and we have to look at positive youth development. We need to fund prevention programs, and we need to fund youth-serving organizations.”
Williams said that sometimes, Latino youth in particular feel the effects of poor funding and poor support systems within schools.
“They feel like they don’t belong, they don’t fit in, they’re not wanted, not respected,” he said. “They don’t feel supported or the support isn’t there.”
Wilcoxson said even though her students “have their moments,” they’re not bad kids. She said Montanez and his friends are some of her brightest students.
“Joel, take that bandana off your head, you look like a hoodlum,” she said.
“But that’s how you roll in gangs,” he replied.
“Yeah, well, you’re not in one. Am I right?”
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