Urban Blight

We walked through our local park today on a nature trail with guide signs identifying features and wildlife in the riparian habitat. All these signs had been defaced by graffiti. This was disturbing on several planes:

  • organizations/beauracracies who put up signs in secluded public sites do not care enough to make them vandalism-proof or easily cleaned/repaired
  • law enforcement does not care enough to intervene in such antisocial behavior
  • parents don’t care enough, aren’t courageous enough, or can’t be bothered to intervene in their children’s antisocial behavior.

The following are my ideas as an interested observer, but with no experience in teaching, law enforcement, or local politics. Therefore, the following may miss the mark widely. But I have a need to make some statement to myself that the problems we face might have a solution, simple in concept albeit difficult to implement due to social, cultural, political, education policy, and fiscal issues. Only by such personal reflections of the citizenry can the status quo be changed positively.

As a parent, I provide love, physical well-being, structure, goals, and low tolerance for disrespect at any age. Children try to establish their power, to manipulate, from age two on. I am of the tough love school, where tough is of the authoratative rather than authoritarian type, dispassionate, understanding, and loving. Tough love is easiest before aberrant behavior becomes ingrained. That is why emphasis on intervention must begin early, both in parenting, and in the schools to which we entrust an extension of our parenting.

Failure of parenting happens, both through ignorance, and even in spite of informed best efforts. It happens a lot. All actions have consequences. How do we deal with the consequences?

Our Urban Problem: Youth Gang Behavior

All countries have gangs. Our disaffected teens are the start of our social blight problem. Keeping kids out of gangs and in school must be our goal.

A gang can be anything from just the few locals, out to show how cool they are by trashing some place or messing with some people, all the way to organized world-wide criminal gangs. There is a slow, slippery slope from the former to the latter. The further down the slope a youth slides, the more cost to society. Law enforcement will need tougher laws and harsher sentences to make progress against hard core gangs. Jobs aren’t the answer to getting young people out of gangs, because once in gangland, it isn’t cool to work, it’s only cool to score. One needs to break the gang mentality before normal options can apply.

The earlier the intervention, the greater the success rate. Young people need a personal vision of hope to resist the negative peer pressures they will face. The real promise of happiness and productivity, spelled jobs, is required to keep people out of gangs in the first place. We must offer real prospects as a reward for constructive behavior.

The Most Bang For The Buck

I distinguish the good from the bad. Bad here defines a range of behavior from disrespectful to disruptive to disturbed to criminal. We need a change of mindset when it comes to dealing with the bad, to a new mindset that divides and conquers. We must segregate good from bad, in schools and neighborhoods, and treat them differently. And within the ranges of good and bad, we need further divisions so each target has well-adapted strategies. By isolating the good, the good can succeed, and so then will our schools succeed in their mission. Isolation enables the bad to get what they really need to become good again before a life becomes another criminal justice system statistic.

We need to help those that want to succeed by the rules, and to get tough on the bad, the school bullies, the cool pranksters, the ones so full of themselves that they disrespect teachers and other authority figures in their life. This must happen throughout the primary grades. The costs in lost productive teaching time, due to making teachers repeatedly deal with disruptive class behavior, is not tracked, but it is the invisible elephant in the room. It costs real money, prevents schools from realizing their educational goals, and worst of all, discourages new teachers from making education a career.

Why shouldn’t every school offer a special room managed by a counselor, where disruptive behavior is immediately isolated and dealt with? Demand the parent/guardian come and receive counseling along with the miscreant. Get them out of the classrooms, and for repeat offenders, then get them out of the school. Tough love means no tolerance.

The Solution Begins With Parents

Parent education should be mandatory at the first sign of student problems in school. Adult evening education should be provided, with escalating intervention as needed. Values and parenting skills need to be taught. New laws may need enactment.

The Schools Continue the Good Works of the Parents

Most schools do a good job, with zero tolerance for gang behavior. School uniforms may be necessary. Schools ought to be a safe haven for kids, and satisfying and productive workplaces for their teachers. The kids need a supportive, secure base where they are taught to deal with their home and neighborhood environment problems.

Schools need to be good role models. Kids are very savvy. They recognize when people aren’t playing by the rules. They realize if a principal cares about them or not. If they observe people taking advantage of the system or breaking the rules with impunity, they lose faith in the system. From simple acts such as line cutting and littering, to vandalism, to bullying, to theft, all such behavior needs to be observed and counseled. And parents are sometimes culprits, such as the kid who is driven to school in an expensive new vehicle, walks into school while talking on a new iPhone, then goes to get a subsidized free meal along with the needy kids. The kids understand about gaming the system; they learn it from their parents. The school needs to challenge all suspect behavior.

Primary education needs to be much more than the 3-Rs in our modern, dense, urban environments. We need to teach ethics, morality, and life skills to children in primary grades, specifically discussing gang mentality and how it will rob one of a useful, happy life. We need to involve them in after-school community help projects. The mantra must be that gangs aren’t cool. It can be especially hard to deal with a primary grade child with older siblings already in gangs. Giving such a child skills to stay on track, together with active interventions of social workers, may be required to have a chance of saving the life.

We need to give children and adolescents hope by demonstrating real possibilities for them as adults, assessing and developing their interests and showing them what people with such interests can aspire to. We need to show the kids success stories of adults who grew up in their same neighborhoods. Schools need to do role-playing exercises to familiarize kids with gang recruitment and criminal activity inducements that they are likely to encounter on the outside. Most of all, we need to keep gang wannabes and antisocial behavior out of the classroom and the school yard. Continuing to mainstream antisocial elements will defeat all other options.

We have a shot at keeping kids out of trouble if we get them straightened out in primary grades. After that, enforcement becomes a necessity to keep the lid on.

The Neighborhood Continues the Good Works of the Schools

Clearly our society needs to do much more, on offense and defense, to police our public spaces and make them safe and clean and attractive. Schools cannot be effective as isolated islands in a sewer. Their environments must be cleansed. Misdemeanor behavior begets felonious behavior. We need tough, and above all consistent intervention in our neighborhoods, to force parents and their offspring to clean up their miscreant acts at the first signs of antisocial behavior. It is a proven law enforcement strategy: by getting tough on the small bad stuff, we get less big bad stuff; that is a bargain of a lifetime. No success will be possible unless the bad elements are either reformed or removed from the neighborhoods.

Neighborhood security and safety needs to be assured, particularly at night, and particularly in public parks and large housing projects. Activism should be promoted in neighborhood watches, with police-community cooperation. The neighborhood residents need to be taught to overcome fear and act as a group for the common good. Curfews should be set. Parks should be closed and policed at night. In our neighborhood, there are visible mounted police during the day. But most of the drug deals, muggings, homicides, and incidents of vandalism happen at night. High tech vision and listening devices could be deployed. Yes, night shift is a drag, but it goes with the territory.

After-school sports and evening social clubs may help with the post-primary age groups. We don’t have as many of them as some other countries.

Putting Tough Behind the Talk

We need different support pathways in place, difficult to implement with today’s public mindset. Foremost, we need a demonstrable path to productive livelihood for all youth who stay clean and in school. Second, we need alternate paths, either to redemption or permanent incarceration, for those that drop out. Additionally, the usual paths to shutting off one’s possibilities need to be closed. It is too easy for dysfunctional adolescents to have babies. There is too much culturally-induced disrespect/violence toward girls and women. It is too easy to excuse the younger miscreants, look the other way. After they become incorrigible, it is too easy to dump the resulting criminal problems on the police and prisons, rather than providing a late path to social redemption through work and education.

Failing To Act Is Not a Pretty Scenario

Experience suggests the problem isn’t going to get fixed. Talk remains cheap. The bureaucrats and local politicians continue their modus: profit from the system and CYA. The good folks hunker down. The gangs bulk up. The war on drugs fuels the ever increasing gang violence. Picture Mexico’s reality as our urban future.

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