Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Protecting New York's Teens

Every New Yorker has seen it happen. A group of teenagers enters a subways car, talking loudly, perhaps cursing or using other epitaphs. Once in the car they expand to fill all space, sprawling across available seats, extending their arms as they hang onto the poles. The other passengers stare at the ground, peer resolutely at their newspapers, trying to avert their eyes from what many see as a threatening presence in their midst.

For decades if not longer, many older New Yorkers have viewed teenagers, particularly those of a different ethic or racial group, as dangerous. The youth gangs of the 1950s, the reports of so-called wilding in the late 1980s and the often-profane shouting of today’s teenagers have reinforced that notion.

For their part, teenagers complain of being harassed by police and others for simply being there. School guards shoo students away from their own schools upon dismissal. Community boards debate how to keep them off the sidewalks (see related story) , and parents of younger children wish the older ones would stay away from playgrounds and even parks. Stores post signs warning students away, particularly during schools hours.


Conflicts and Resolutions

Police in the Schools:
A uniformed presence has made schools safer – but at what cost?

Hanging Out and Hurting Business:
Teens on the street scare away customers.

Breaking the Cycle of Violence:
A program in East New York tries to stop the mayhem by helping young people respect themselves.

Taking A.C.T.I.O.N. at The Point:
In Hunts Point, young people do not just complain about problems in their community, they try to solve them.

Cutbacks After School:
Reductions in government funds will force shutdowns of programs that keep young people active and occupied.

While this tension has long existed, a number of recent incidents have focused attention on it.

--About 30 students on their way to a wake for a murdered teen, a gang leader, police said, were arrested in May in Brooklyn. Police said they feared the gathering would lead to violence and more gang activity, but the young people charged the police acted only because they were young and black or Latino. Later Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said the young people jumping on cars and being generally rowdy. He has not yet produced any evidence to this effect.

--Police arrested more than 200 people, many but not all young, at this year’s Puerto Rican Day parade. Many said they were picked up simply for wearing yellow and gold, the colors of the Latin Kings gang. Police denied it, saying people were stopped for their conduct, not what they wore.

--Following a string of robberies police last October reportedly stopped any all male black teenagers at the 7th Avenue subway station in Park Slope Brooklyn.

--A 13-yearold middle school student in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, was handcuffed and arrested, reportedly for writing on her classroom desk.

At the same time, a number of studies and reports have documented the sometimes tense relationship between teens and police. The New York Civil Liberties Union issued a study last spring charging that policies designed make New York City schools safer have "transformed New York City classrooms into hostile and dysfunctional environments that damage students and disempower educators.” (See related story.) In particular, the report found that 93,000 of the city’s approximately 1 million public school students had to go through extreme security – metal detectors, searches and so on -- because they attend schools the Department of Education considers dangerous. Further the report found that, with more than 4,600 school safety agents, “the NYPD's School Safety Division alone constitutes the tenth largest police force in the country.”

Stop and frisk data released by the New York City police department found the police stopped five times as many people in 2006 as in 2002 and that half of those stopped were black – and young black men say they are disproportionately the targets of such searches. The City Council has asked for more information, which it says the police department has not furnished.

A series of columns by Bob Herbert of the New York Times focused on the intense policing of young people in the city in the schools and on the streets.


While most teenagers—like most people of any age – are not criminals, police and others have reason to be concerned about illegal acts committed by young people. Crime statistics for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2006, found a rise in crime, including murder, committed by young people in New York City.

Last summer saw a spate of teenage violence across the country leading Sarah Karnasiewicz to write in Salon, “The story of summer 2006 has been one of kids and killing,” although she added that most of the deaths were in middle-sized cities, rather than New York or Los Angeles. But in one large city – Chicago – some 32 students were killed in the school year that ended in June.

People who work with young people, such as Waddell Parks in East New York (see related story), confirm that an increasing number of young people settle any difference, however minor, with a gun. And while gangs are a less serious problem here than in some other cities, they do exist.

Then there are the incidents that, while they may be far less common than they once were, remain chilling: The teenagers who killed a Brooklyn teenager for his iPod or the high school conflict that spilled out into busy Union Square shortly before Christmas, leaving one youngster dead of stab wounds and two other seriously injured.

The current crackdown in schools was instituted in 2004 after a series of well-publicized incidents prompted politicians and the press to condemn the Bloomberg administration for not doing more to keep schools safe. Further, while some teens say police, schools officials and others monitor their activity too closely, statistics show that teen violence may fester because adults do too little. A study conducted in the late 1990s, based on interviews with young, violent offenders in New York City, found that 100 percent of them said adults ignored older youths fighting in the street, 74 percent said they ignored young people selling drugs, and 37 percent ignored property being vandalized.


Few people would argue that police have no role in guarding against youth violence or that schools do not need some kind of security. Disagreements, though, arise over when such measures infringe on the rights of teenagers who, of course, are entitled to the constitutional protections of other people living in the United States. In addition many who work with teens say security measures can only do so much. To address the problem in a more fundamental way, they maintain, teenagers need to have more respect for themselves and for others and must to be actively involved in their communities in a constructive way.

This week, Gotham Gazette, examines several aspects of this issue, including the situation in the schools, programs to address the problem – and the funding difficulties afflicting some of those programs.  

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