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At Meeting, Weaver Students Tell Of Violence

April 10, 2005
By CHRISTINE DEMPSEY, Courant Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Three Weaver High School students on Saturday gave an audience at Harvard Divinity School a taste of the adversity they face during a presentation punctuated by tears.

Sophomores Sasha Riley and Yordanos Abraham and junior Lloyd Saunders spoke at a conference called "Young People and Social Justice: Planting the Seeds for Change." Sixteen people listened intently as the students from Hartford talked about the challenges they face in and out of school. This school year, three of their classmates were shot on their way to or from school, one fatally. A fourth student was shot in a store in a different neighborhood.

University of Hartford student Hannah Sigel, who tutors and mentors the trio through the university's Educational Main Street program, and the program's director, Mary Christensen, also spoke at the workshop, called "Social Justice: Fact or Fiction."

But the highlight was the students, who stood smartly dressed before tables arranged in the shape of a U. They read from papers they had prepared in advance.

Wearing a pinstriped pantsuit, Riley, 14, talked about how violence seeps into the school from the streets. Last year, she said, there was a stabbing in a school hallway. This year, there were the shootings nearby. One was a drive-by shooting at a school bus stop, she said.

Still, Riley said, Weaver is "a very good school." She described the teachers and student teachers as caring and helpful, and said the school's curriculum is "just as good as the curriculum taught in the suburban schools."

"But Weaver's problem lies in some of the students," she said. "Some students are so angry that they come to school to provoke other students. Sometimes, you might come to school expecting to learn something, and someone might try to pick a fight with you over something as small as a place in the lunch line."

The school also has gangs that "bring street issues inside of the school." There's homophobia as well, she said. She said she knows of gay students who have been beaten because of their sexual orientation.

Riley said students have to push themselves to succeed, but it's not easy.

"Our parents expect us to excel, but it is so hard when you live in a place where you see your friends and relatives killed," she said.

Abraham, 16, said she is trying to stop the violence. She and a few other students formed a group called Students Against Violence Emerge, or SAVE. The group aims to raise awareness about violence and "to try to stop it before it's too late and another student becomes another victim," she said.

Teachers and administrators have thrown their support behind the group, she said, but few students have embraced it and some oppose it. Some don't believe SAVE will do any good, she said. Posters promoting the new group have been ripped down.

Abraham was moved to act when Lorenzo Morgan Rowe, a relative of her friends and a Weaver High honor student, was fatally shot while coming home from a high school basketball game. He was not the intended target, she said.

"This guy didn't have nothing to do with it. He just got hit for no reason," she said.

Saunders, 16, said he sees things at school that disturb him, such as students swearing at teachers and "a lot of pregnant girls." He predicted that there would be fewer disruptions and better grades if parents were more involved and if the school had more help from such people as Sigel. He called for the city to become part of the solution.

"The city of Hartford needs to become more involved with the students, parents and administration," he said. "And together we can make Weaver High one of the top schools in the state of Connecticut."

The room broke out in vigorous applause, but before long, there were tears.

Kaytie Dowcett, who represents an after-school program in Boston called Tenacity, asked Saunders how he manages to stay about the fray.

"Why are you different?" she asked.

Saunders credited his mother. His voice breaking, he told a story about how, when he was turning 10, she didn't have a car and she walked through the rain to buy him a birthday cake. Dowcett teared up, as did Sigel and at least one other person in the room.

After the session was over, Christensen said she liked having the personal testimonials as opposed to a lecture from a program administrator.

"I thought their stories were much more poignant," she said.

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.
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