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Students In Brawl Reunite For Day

Program Intended To Ease Tensions

March 23, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

The angry seventh-grader in the corner was asked to write a description of her neighborhood on a poster board. What she wrote and how she wrote it illustrate in a poignant way the challenges youths face straddling childhood and adulthood in one of the most troubled neighborhoods in the state.

"People using drugs, selling guns and posted on the corner. Snitches," she wrote of Hartford's North End.

She dotted her "i's" with plump, happy-looking hearts then slumped back in her chair, still simmering over her objection to being in the room at all.

The girl was one of 24 Fox Middle School students who were arrested in connection with a March 8 brawl that stopped traffic and forced the school to postpone a critical statewide test. They were ordered to attend the daylong program Wednesday that was meant to defuse tension and ease the youngsters' return to school today, after their 10-day suspensions.

A juvenile court judge demanded the students attend the program, which was run by the school system at the Boys & Girls Clubs. Eric Crawford, the district's violence intervention specialist who organized Wednesday's program, said he hopes the session serves as a model for a permanent program for students who are suspended for fighting.

The day began in the gymnasium with games and exercises meant to get the youngsters used to working together with children from rival neighborhoods. The children had not seen each other since the fights that spread to the school lawn, sidewalks, and Albany and Blue Hills avenues.

There were no fights in the gym. But then keeping watch were various adults including a half-dozen police officers, school security guards, a few parents and club staff.

The atmosphere was more sober in the smaller rooms, where boys were separated from girls to talk about school and the streets.

Last year, Hartford police took 350 guns off the city's streets, so the girl's reference to gun sales is a real factor.

School board member Andrea Comer showed the youngsters pictures of children who have died in gun-related incidents to reinforce the consequences of petty arguments that go too far.

Sam Saylor, president of the PTO Presidents Council, underscored for parents that students suffer from trauma caused by the gunshots they hear at night and by the shootings they've witnessed. Many of these youngsters need help coping with life around them, he said.

"Your children are dealing with adult issues they didn't create," Saylor said.

The depth of the youngsters' confusion was clear when the girls met with the police to talk about the streets and the role of officers. One of the girls asked Sgt. Emory Hightower why the police arrest drug dealers rather than rapists and robbers.

Hightower was firm in his reply. "If you sell drugs, you are poisoning the neighborhood," he said.

And rap music that glorifies drug sales is poisoning the children, Hightower said later.

For most of the day, the adults tried to draw the youngsters out to feel at ease with each other.

Fox Principal Andrew Serrao didn't sugarcoat his message.

"Some of you walked away thinking that was a badge of honor," Serrao said of the fights. "That is no badge of honor. You brought embarrassment, shame and fear to a school that was changing its image. Seven hundred and twenty-five students were affected by your behavior that day.

"Fox Middle School is a place to learn," he said. "It is not a place for you to fight. There will be zero tolerance. What happened on March 8 will never, ever happen again as long as I am at Fox."

Many of the youngsters said they thought the daylong session was helpful because it will make it easier for them to go back to school without worrying about rugnning into students who they last saw in the fight.

But several of the girls said the tension is not gone and that there would be more fights.

Serrao acknowledged that Wednesday's session does not mark the end of a problem. "This is just the beginning," he said of the effort.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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