Flowers for Children?

Stop Saving the Flowers

The Death of the District’s Children

The Chesapeake Chronicle

When I was in high school, I occasionally babysat the two young daughters of Washington Post style writer Lonnae O’Neal Parker.

One day, after yet another school shooting, she asked me a simple question, but one that I had never truly considered.

“Are you afraid to go to school?”

The thought had never occurred to me.Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro, Md., was surrounded on three sides by corn fields.I saw horses, cows and sheep on my morning ride to school.While there was the occasional fight in the cafeteria, I never considered a student going on a shooting rampage with me as a target.You could say I felt safe when I left my house every morning for school.

Last year, Mrs. Parker, as I call her, wrote a short piece about the rash of child shootings in Washington, right after the shooting of 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie. In it, she recounted an imaginary visit to a cemetery, in which someone is trying desperately to keep flowers at a grave from tipping over.Her last line struck me immediately and has stayed fresh in my mind, particularly as of late, suggesting a motto: “Save the flowers! The children are dying.”

There has not been a day in the past two weeks that I have not turned on the news and heard about a shooting killing or wounding of a child.Just two weeks ago, 9-year-old Donte Manning died from wounds he suffered when shot in the face last month in the District.Just two days before that, April 24, 16-year-old Lavelle Jones was gunned down while sitting in a car with friends on his way home from an under-18 nightclub.

In the past 16 months, 27 youths have been killed in the district.That’s enough people to fill a classroom.In 2004, 24 of the District’s 197 homicides were juveniles.Of those, two dozen were due to violence.Most of the juvenile homicides occurred during the academic year.

Now, three years out of high school, I ponder what it must be like for those students who attend school in the district.

What is it like to arrive at school in the morning and have to walk through metal detectors before you can go to your locker?

Or what is it like to attend the funerals of your classmates instead of birthday parties?

It is a feeling that children should not have to know.These students live in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the District.School should be the one place, above all, that they feel safe in.

This is certainly not the case in Ballou Senior High School, where 17-year-old James Richardson was gunned down on the school premises.

The question now is what can be done to ensure the safety of the district youth.Whatever is in place now is not working.Anthony Smith, an 18-year-old senior at Ballou, expressed this need, saying, “We needed somebody to talk to.”The new campaign should be one about saving the lives of district children, not protecting the flowers at their memorials.

Mayor Anthony Williams is on the right path.He and D.C. Councilman Marion Barry recently sat down with more than two dozen Ballou students following the death of Jones, to devise more programs to keep youth off the streets of Southeast Washington.The youth involved, selected by Peaceaholics, a local anti-violence advocacy group, included student leaders, truants and troublemakers.

This is particularly productive because it allows the youths to take part in choosing the programs they need and help make them work.

I know from experience that when youth are involved in making something work, they are more likely to see that it flourishes.After all, the juveniles who were killed were the brothers, sisters, cousins, friends and classmates of the youth who must now work for change.I hope that will provide an impetus for success.

Adults should not be allowed to hijack the project.When they have done that, the work is ineffective.

Juvenile homicides are increasing, even though overall homicides are decreasing.Extra attention should be paid to what the youth have to say, because they may have the key to unlock the solution.

These young people are closest to the problem.If they can work with adults toward a solution, they will become better, more respectable citizens.

Then, maybe the flowers we try to save won’t be for their graves, but for their graduations.

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