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Shootings spike among teens

by Amy Kingsley

Jimmy Peele dropped his grandson off at 915 Skate Park at a little after 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday. The boy, 13, fastened his helmet and hit the half pipes alongside about a half dozen other boys of a similar age and style, cargo-shorted and T-shirted, shod in DC shoes and Etnies. Peele paid $8 for five hours of skating; for $16 skaters can work the ramps for a full 10 hours. It’s a bargain for a dose of parental peace of mind, Peele said. “It’s better than him being on the street,” he said. Peele, who lives with his grandson in Randleman, said there is plenty of stuff in town to keep his grandson occupied and out of the hands of trouble – at least there is at his house. “He’s got his own half pipe, swimming pool, basketball goal,” Peele said. The key to keeping kids out of trouble, Peele said, is to stay on top of them. It’s advice he shares with many professionals in the field of juvenile delinquency. “It’s just common sense,” he said. “If you raise ’em right, they will go astray sometimes. That’s just life. But they will come back around.” Since mid-June, at least seven Greensboro teenagers not much older than Peele’s grandson have crossed the Rubicon of safe return because of gun violence that they have either perpetrated or fallen victim to. In the latest incident, three teens involved in a kidnapping and robbery on July 2 fired on police officers and fled. All three were arrested; they ranged in age from 16 to 19. In the three weeks between June 11 and July 1, three teenagers lost their lives: Kevin Antonio Womack, 19, died during a shooting on Sykes Avenue. Less than a week later, early in the morning on June 16, 15-year-old Preston Mathew Angelo died at Moses Cone Hospital from a gunshot wound suffered a few hours earlier. Ernest Washington Dixon, 16, was the most recent victim; he died after a late-night shooting on Boyd Street. Juveniles have been on the other end of a homicide as well. Police arrested a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old in the shooting death of business owner Wiley Pressley. Before June, juveniles – those aged 15-and-under according to the criminal justice system – had not been involved in any homicides this year, and the recent spike in crime among teenagers has concerned those charged with handling delinquency. Greensboro Police Detective Alan McHenry, who works in the juvenile crime division, said the department used to see an increase in activity during the summer, but not anymore. “It’s not seasonal any longer,” McHenry said. “I’m really not sure why this is happening. We don’t usually see spikes like this that often anymore.” One explanation McHenry offered was that gang-related activity had increased recently. At least some of the recent violent crime involving juveniles has been gang-related, he said. Statistics from the police department for the first half of the year showed no seasonal pattern to juvenile crime. Police arrested 208 juveniles in January and less than 200 in the next few months. The number of arrests shot up to 238 in May and fell back down to 165 for June. Back at the skate park, 13-year-old Kernodle Middle School student Justin Gill took a break. He sat on a plastic chair in the dusty lot outside the warehouse; inside the skaters blasted the Pixies too loud to hold a conversation. None of them spoke anyway; only the rush of bearings could be heard over the music. Gill has been skating for a year and a half, and today an older friend and fellow skater drove here to skate the first term. He said he had not noticed any increased gang activity or criminality among his peers. Indeed, the members of his cohort appeared to be the rule-abiding kind. When Gill walked back into the park with a can of Pepsi, his friend chided him. “You’re not supposed to drink in here anyway,” he said. Rules or no, 915 is the only skate park in Greensboro for kids like Gill. If the park weren’t there, he said, he and his friends would have to drive to Kernersville. “Kids need things to do,” McHenry said. “Especially during the summer, but after school, too.” Too many of the programs, McHenry said, don’t appeal to the kids who need them most. At-risk kids and those in the juvenile justice system can be sentenced to wilderness camp and counseling, he said. Chuck Hodierne, the director of Youth Focus, a resource center for at-risk youth, said referrals to his agency usually drop off in the summer because many of their clients are steered there by the school system. “Over the past several years, there has actually been a decrease in violent crime among juveniles,” Hodierne said. “But we have been seeing the same stories in the newspaper that you have.” Hodierne said it was too early to tell whether recent shootings are just a blip or part of a larger trend of increasing juvenile crime. “Juvenile crime as a whole has been going down over the past five years,” he said. Hodierne fingered the usual suspects as causes of crime among juveniles: poverty, drugs and broken homes. “The last major factor is just the prevalence of violence in all forms of media,” he said. “Point-and-shoot video games, movies, music and television.” Youth Focus serves about 2,500 kids and families a year, Hodierne said. Some clients are referred there by court counselors or school officials, but the agency has an open referral policy, which means that kids and families can refer themselves. They are a United Way agency, and usually charge families for services on a sliding scale. In some cases, they waive fees altogether. “All the [causes] I’ve just described are pretty hard for social service organizations to deal with head-on,” he said. “The ones who come to us, we can help them get an education and a job, but for everyone we deal with, there as many others who never get the services they need.” Hodierne said addressing the real cause of juvenile crime would require a societal shift toward promoting two-parent families and addressing poverty. “Most of the major changes that are needed are outside our realm of control,” he said. “What I usually tell people is that we are an agency that’s downstream from a flooded river. We pluck children out of the flooded stream, but we are not upstream seeing who is pushing children into the river.” Hodierne said he is frustrated by the lack of public conversation about the issues that affect kids and teens. Public indifference leaves kids like Gill and his friends at the mercy of fate. The lucky ones are born into stable, caring families; the unlucky may end up with bad role models at best, and with neglectful or abusive guardians at worst. Gill walked around the front of the warehouse and poked through the merchandise at 915 Skate Shop. After a few minutes, he returned to the seat outside the warehouse. “It’s hot out here,” he said, “especially with a helmet.” He laid his helmet in his lap and ran his hand through his shaggy hair.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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