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Williams Promises Plan to Address Juvenile Homicides

By Theola S. Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2005; Page B01

Mayor Anthony A. Williams told the D.C. Council yesterday that he soon will unveil a strategy to address an increase in juvenile homicides, which he called a "very serious, grave and disturbing issue."

Williams provided no details during his appearance before a council hearing on youth violence. He is planning to present his plan in several weeks, when he gives his annual State of the District address, officials said.

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Deputy Mayor Neil O. Albert previewed one component of the strategy, saying that the city plans to base teams of government workers in high-poverty and high-crime neighborhoods. The workers would link residents directly with employment and mental health programs and social services.

Albert, deputy mayor for children, youth, families and elders, said people struggling with social issues find it difficult to locate and navigate the government agencies from which they can receive help.

Williams (D) testified that city agencies must improve how they collect, analyze and share information about youths. Last year, 24 juveniles were slain in the District, compared with 13 in 2003 and 16 in 2002.

D.C. police released a report yesterday that noted that last year's surge in juvenile killings came as the overall number of homicides fell 20 percent.

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said stepped-up enforcement resulted in a 20 percent increase in juvenile arrests for various offenses. In addition, the police handled 1,240 curfew violations and brought 2,400 truants to city schools' truant centers. The police also launched intervention programs with city gangs.

Ramsey said that as a city resident and an African American, he was disturbed to see that all of last year's juvenile homicide victims were black. He cautioned that the issue is complex and requires an effort that extends beyond the police.

Officials said school truancy is among the problems tied to youth violence. Last year, 13-year-old Michael Swann was shot to death in a neighbor's apartment in Southeast Washington while he was skipping school.

School board member Tommy Wells, who was among numerous witnesses at the daylong hearing, said a citywide truancy task force has generated promising results since it was launched in the spring. That initiative came after the slaying of Jahkema "Princess" Hansen, 14, who had missed weeks of classes.

Beginning with the current school year, school, court and social services officials identified 200 elementary school children in high-crime and poverty-stricken neighborhoods who have missed 15 or more days of school without an excuse within a two-month period. Social workers visited the children's homes. The child welfare agency opened 20 neglect cases, and the rest of the families received counseling.

In the first phase, from September to October, 54 students had 15 or more unexcused absences, compared with 99 students for that period in 2003 -- a significant decline, Wells said.

"This coordinated collaborative effort shows what can happen when we all work together and hold parents accountable for the education and well-being of their children," said Wells (District 3).

The truancy task force will report more results this month, and it is looking at how to expand truancy programs for junior and senior high school students.

Although the hearing drew top government and court officials, the most poignant testimony came from members of the public.

Sondra Phillips, 45, implored council members to develop a grass-roots strategy. "You have to go down to the street level, and that means you have to reach the parents," Phillips said, tears running down her cheeks. "If you don't help us to help [our children], then we have failed."

Hassan Jenkins, 10, told the council that each time he steps outside his Northeast Washington home, "I feel like everything is wrong. I see people on the corner, people begging for money, asking for cigarettes."

The fourth-grader, accompanied by his aunt, missed school to attend the hearing along with his brother, Rasheed Jenkins, 6. The brothers have lost two uncles to gun violence.

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