Wild In The Streets: Philadelphia’s Violent Youth Problem


Vincent Poppa was returning to his nursing home on an evening stroll after stepping out for a soda. While passing by Finnegan Park in Southwest Philadelphia, he was suddenly hit in the back of the head with a gun. As he lay there defenseless and unconscious he was brutally stomped over and over by four thugs. Poppa, 71, who suffered a heart attack during the attack, was a victim of a violent, new neighborhood street game called “catch and wreck.” One of his attackers, charged with aggravated assault, was an 11-year-old boy.

Lindsay Doering, of Filter Square, insists that while there "most certainly is a youth violence problem in the city, the police are doing a fine job containing it," though he thinks the city needs more officers on the street.

Sean Conroy,  36, was taking a midday ride on the Market-Frankford El when he was fatally punched in the back and face. The assailants, all teenagers, laughed as they watched Conroy collapse and die on a subway platform from asthma caused by the blunt force injuries. Kinta Stanton, a Simon Gratz High School 10th grader, later confessed to the murder, saying that her motive wasn’t robbery, but amusement. She told police she and her friends just “wanted to beat someone up.”

Conroy’s mother, addressing the gang of teens in court after the sentencing, said, “He was my heart, my soul. I wake up to the sounds of his pleas for mercy while you laughed. I don’t understand how you could laugh. You laughed right up to the time of the verdict.”

It is ultra-violent incidents like these and the growing flash mob trend that recently turned South Street into anarchy that is giving Philadelphia a reputation for hostile, uncontrollable teens.

The city at least gives the appearance that it invests in its youth. In his five-year financial plan for the city released in 2008, Mayor Nutter earmarked $25 million for youth violence reduction and a $2.5 million increase to the Department of Recreation. Yet, after a number of citywide cuts to fill a $108 million budget gap in 2008, the city shut down public pools and recreation centers that host after-school programs. This is not to mention myriad of problems plaguing the seemingly broken Philadelphia Public School system. To some, it would appear that city government has all but abandoned teens and adolescents.

Daneilla Sansetta got caught in the middle of the recent South Street flash mob riot as she was bicycling across town. Sansetta thinks that the majority of children under 18 are well behaved but just "hopes the kids that are going out hurting people, harassing shop owners and breaking stuff get bored of it soon.”

As seen in the escalating student-on-student violence at South Philadelphia High School, strict attention to the matter is lacking. In a legal complaint filed with the school district, six Asian student that were interviewed said that investigators either downplayed or left out critical information about their school attacks. The complaint, an addendum to a federal civil rights case submitted to the Department of Justice, cites 26 individual assaults on Asian students that occurred throughout the 2008-09 school year. In one instance, according to a legal document acquired by the Philadelphia Inquirer, one student was beaten so severely that “the bones in his face were broken.” Another child was attacked so often that he ended up dropping out of school. School district officials called the federal complaint “outrageous” and “hurtful” though have refused to make an official statement or acknowledge the details of complaints against them. They noted that they are attempting to curb the violence with diversity training for teachers, students and staff.

It has been estimated that about 40 percent of Philadelphia high school students leave school without graduating. This not only illustrates a lack on commitment to the future of local youth but it also places a huge burden on the city’s economy. According to a study done by the Alliance for Excellent Education an estimated 16,400 Philadelphia teenagers dropped out before graduating with their class of 2008.

The study suggests that if Philadelphia cut the high school drop out rate in half, there would be 900 new jobs in the city and that graduates would have contributed to an increase of the gross regional product by almost $159 million. The study also indicated that decreasing the high school drop out rate could increase tax revenue by $18 million or more.

Reverend Cheryl Coleman thinks that more opportunity for the city's youth and active adult engagement in the children's lives could curb the violence.

The Rev. Cheryl Coleman, of Walters Memorial AME Church on South Street, thinks there needs to be more leadership toward handling Philadelphia’s youth. “We have to do better in giving our young people something to do. We need to be giving them guidance, creating activities for them and keeping them educated so that they can stay off the street,” said Coleman

In response to the recent spate of flash mobs Mayor Nutter and Police Chief Ramsey spoke bluntly about escalating youth violence, vowing to commit “additional policing, stricter enforcement of youth curfews, monitoring of social networking channels, coordination with the FBI, and a potentially tougher response from the judicial system for those caught engaging in disruptive behavior as well as their parents and guardians.”

The mayor went on to encourage parents and community leaders to take a more active role in children and teenager’s lives, citing the limitations of after-school programs. He also launched a public service campaign encouraging parents to stay aware of their children’s whereabouts and activities outside of the home.

John Lesho, a resident of Fishtown echoes the mayor’s message of parental accountability. “You really can’t blame the city. It’s the parents’ responsibility to control their teens. I would like to know where the parents of these kids are,” said Lesho

It appears that the main problem may lie in a lack of accountability, though who is ultimately to blame? In his televised public service ad the mayor suggests the parents are solely responsible for their children’s action. School district officials bristle at accusations of neglect and enabling and then admit to no wrongdoing. There appears to be no clearly defined “guilty party” or even anyone willing to step in to take the reins of a quickly deteriorating situation and deepening public threat. For now, without direct action or leadership, Philadelphia presents an environment ripe for wrongdoing and is giving the appearance that cultivating the young does not take top priority.

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