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Boston youth speak out on violence, education, health

Talia Whyte | 8/18/2009, 7:03 a.m.

As the old saying goes, children should be seen, not heard. But today, with quality of life problems growing for many Boston kids, more adults are recognizing that the city’s youth need to be part of the conversation about finding solutions.

Aiming to help jumpstart the dialogue, the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) has hosted a series of recent community meetings intended to give youth a chance to voice their opinions on a range of health and safety issues.

“Whether the topic is public health or violent crime, the youth of this city should be our partners in identifying the strategies and solutions for problems that also affect them,” said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “Their voices should be heard.”

The meetings have focused on a BPHC status report broken down by neighborhood that examines educational attainment, school dropout rates, and the impact of violence and sexually transmitted diseases on youth. The goal of the meetings is to get feedback from youth on the report and make sure the information is updated.

“The information we currently have is limited, and we don’t have the whole story,” said BPHC Executive Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer during a meeting held last Thursday at English High School in Jamaica Plain. “This is why we need your help. We want to address some of these problems in the city.”

Attendees at the English High meeting were certainly not shy about sharing their views on the state of the Boston school system. A recent report conducted by the school system showed that over half of city high school students don’t graduate in four years, and that the majority of dropouts are black and Latino boys. According to the BPHC status report, black and Latino students fared worse on the MCAS exams than their white and Asian counterparts.

The audience, comprised mostly of black and Latino high school students and facilitators, indicated a variety of reasons why minority student achievement might be flagging, including a lack of resources in city public schools.

Boston Community Leadership Academy student Stephany Trinidad, 16, said per capita spending is higher for private schools generally attended by more white and Asian students, and that educators in public schools don’t motivate their students.

“[Students] should be motivated to learn about issues that aren’t just related to [the] MCAS,” she said. “I want to learn about more practical things that are actually useful in the workplace after I graduate.”

Some students said problems at home and in their neighborhoods can also have a major effect on academic performance.

“I care more about being shot than taking [the] MCAS,” said Will Glass, 18, of Brighton High School.

While the meeting was initially intended to focus on various public health concerns, attendees spent most of the time engaging in an open discussion about violence in the city, especially on the issue of “snitching.”

According to the BPHC report, 61 percent of youth surveyed said they call 911 when they witness a crime. However, most of the students quickly dismissed this percentage, saying it was actually much lower due to fear of retribution. Several students indicated that there is no way for a witness to be guaranteed anonymity once evidence is given to the police. One student said he can easily go on the Internet and find names of witnesses.

On top of that, many believe that even if a witness goes to the authorities with information, the crime still won’t be solved. Another student recalled feeling that police did nothing after he reported being jumped by several men.

Others cited fear of contributing to racial profiling as another factor in not reporting crimes.

“If I see something, I am not going to say anything,” said Craig McClay, program coordinator of Teen Empowerment, who is black. “If I give a description of what the suspect looks like to the police, the description is going to look like me. And they are going to look for every single guy that looks like me.”

While some believe that “snitching” does more harm than good, others emphasized that involving the authorities is the only way to end the violence.

“I know a lot of you are scared of snitching, but we need to initiate change in our community,” said Alliston Thomas, a facilitator for Youth for Prevention, Action, and Change through Thought, a community-based group focused on fostering leadership and critical thinking skills in at-risk youth. “If we don’t do anything, this problem will continue to have a domino effect.”

After the meetings end next week, the BPHC plans to compile their findings and present potential strategies to local, youth-oriented community groups in the next few months. In the meantime, students hope to keep this discussion going.

“It’s really important that the city hear what we have to say about these things,” said Jessica Martinez, 17, a student at Brighton High School. “Kids in Boston shouldn’t be left behind.”