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Council to hold hearing on school street worker plan

Micah Nemiroff | 1/15/2009, 7:48 a.m.

Amid growing concerns over youth violence in Boston, City Councilor-at-Large Michael F. Flaherty will convene a hearing next Wednesday to discuss a pilot program designed to bring city street workers into the Boston Public Schools (BPS).

BPS Superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson is scheduled to attend the hearing, slated for April 23 at 4 p.m. at the City Council Chambers, according to Flaherty spokeswoman Emily Robbins. Councilors are expected to discuss implementing the pilot program in schools that have experienced the most incidents of youth violence.

According to Flaherty, the pilot program would authorize two street workers from the Boston Center for Youth and Families (BCYF) per school in four of the most troubled schools in the BPS system. He hopes to expand the initial effort soon after the pilot is launched.

“If successful, I hope the program can expand to more schools citywide,” Flaherty said during a phone interview.

The pilot program is a “strategy to address the epidemic of youth violence and curb the dropout crisis,” explained Flaherty, who said he believes that “more intensified supervision will help students in the schools and the communities at large” and could have “wide-sweeping effects.”

The South Boston councilor said his interest in getting more street workers in city schools is as much personal as it is political.

“I am outraged as a parent with children in the public schools and as a city councilor that more hasn’t been done to address the issue,” he said.

The hearing on the pilot program comes as the council prepares to hold hearings on Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s recently released $2.42 billion city budget proposal for fiscal year 2009. The budget includes funding for the BCYF, which manages the street worker program, but not specifically for the pilot.

Gov. Deval Patrick has also authorized more funding for youth violence prevention in his proposed $28.2 billion state budget.

After the program was introduced in 1990 under former Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, street workers were quickly heralded as successful community liaisons that helped curb youth and gang violence during the “Boston Miracle.” Youth violence dipped in the mid-90s — by 1997, homicides in the city had plummeted by 80 percent from the start of the decade, with street workers’ presence and efforts in city neighborhoods considered to be at the core of the drop.

The climate has changed since the height of the Boston Miracle, and though street workers can still be found on the city streets, their numbers have dwindled. City payroll figures indicate that though the numbers have crept up this decade, staffing remains far below the program’s original amount, and none can be found in Boston schools.

Some also believe that the current crop of street workers — who work from 12-8 p.m. daily, with many attending additional events and community meetings — is spread too thin, limiting workers’ effectiveness on their beats.

The hearing continues a Council dialogue on street workers that has grown louder in recent years. A December 2006 report by the council’s Special Committee on Youth Violent Crime Prevention concluded that the city needed to hire and train more street workers to mentor youths, lest bubbling tensions explode into full-scale violence.

City Councilor Charles C. Yancey has long been one of the more outspoken voices in support of a funding boost for the program, going so far as to call on the city to hire up to 300 street and youth workers in a resolution unanimously approved by the City Council last May. The most the city had ever employed was 50, Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce told the Boston Herald.

“I don’t think the mayor gets it,” Yancey told the Herald. “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem. We have to connect with these young people before they get in trouble.”

A couple of years back, Yancey, council colleagues Sam Yoon and Chuck Turner, and former City Councilor Felix Arroyo called for budget increases of $3.9 million to fund additional anti-violence programs and street and youth workers. Yoon even extended the call to hundreds of young constituents, sending off an e-mail blast asking them to flood the City Council chambers for a June 2006 budget hearing and demand more money for youth programs. The budget eventually passed, without the additional funding, by a 9-4 vote.

Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis recently said he wants to restore key elements of the program to their original state, extending the street workers’ operating hours through the early morning and bringing in ex-gang bangers who possess more intimate knowledge of both the players and the game than the clean-record crew the city now employs.

“I just know when it worked they were there when the action was going on,” Davis told the Boston Globe in a Feb. 2008 interview. “It doesn’t seem to work as well now … I would like to see it get back to the way it was when it got started.”

In the decade since that 1997 watermark, when homicides dipped 80 percent, the murder rate has climbed, an increase in violence that has raised concerns. The city saw 66 homicides in 2007, down from a 10-year high of 75 in 2005 and the 74 murders of 2006, but an increase from late ’90s figures. According to the most recent Boston Police Department statistics, there had been 14 homicides in Boston this year as of March 23, two ahead of last year’s pace.

While most participants in the street worker debate agree on the need for additional efforts, there exists a difference of opinion on the best way to best tackle the youth violence issue.

At an October 2007 hearing, BPS Chief Operating Office Jim McIntyre said more mentoring and intervention is important, but stopped short of endorsing street workers in schools.

“I think what we’re saying is there are a variety of adults in the school who can play that role,” McIntyre said, according to the South End News. “It doesn’t have to be street workers.”

Funding for the program may be a sticking point. It is not yet clear if either the city or the BPS system have the resources available to launch even the pilot project, let alone a full-scale street workers program.

“Once we get a city budget, we can start the hearing process,” Flaherty said. “We will see if we have the capacity for it.”

But despite the potential roadblocks, Flaherty said he believes that the program could be part of the solution.

“Look at the facts, don’t tell me that it’s not going to make a difference. Tell me something that is going to make a difference,” he said. “With 66 homicides, and shell casings found in the exam schools, the time has never appeared more urgent.

“The street workers are uniquely positioned in the communities. They are experienced at defusing conflict, getting information from our kids at school to help the communities at the ground level. I think we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we overlook this program.”