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
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.
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