Teenagers Wield a Pen Against Youth Violence
2 D.C. Finalists Honored for Essays
By Sewell Chan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2004; Page B01
Anthony D. Carter sees reassurance in the metal detectors and X-ray machines inside the entrance to his junior high school in Southwest Washington. From his perspective, the devices are a buffer, helping to shield the classrooms and hallways from the violence that is commonplace on the District's streets.
"I do not walk around outside by myself," Anthony, 13, wrote in an essay assigned by his English teacher in the spring. "The only way I would go out, is if I am with a buddy or family member."
A ninth-grader at Jefferson Junior High School, Anthony is one of two District students honored yesterday as national finalists in the Do the Write Thing program, which began 10 years ago in an effort to get children to examine their feelings and write about the culture of youth violence and what they can do to combat it. Organizers said 32,000 middle-school students from throughout the country participated this year.
The 47 finalists, each accompanied by a relative or an educator, were led this week on a three-day tour of the city that included visits to the Library of Congress, the Department of Justice and the National Zoo and culminated in a ceremony and reception last night at the Russell Senate Office Building, at which Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) and Washington Wizards center-forward Etan Thomas spoke.
The essay contest, which is open to seventh- and eighth-graders, was held as juvenile crime is on the rise in the District, according to most officials. Last year, 760 new juvenile cases were referred to D.C. Superior Court for "acts against persons," or violent crimes, a 14.5 percent increase from 2002.
Although juvenile crime across the United States declined significantly during the 1990s, the Washington area has been rattled recently by incidents involving youths, including several deaths caused by teenagers riding in cars stolen in the District and the arrest last month of a 12-year-old who brought a loaded rifle into a Prince William County middle school.
Anthony, a lanky, soft-spoken boy with a serious manner, shares an apartment with his parents and younger sister on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill, near the western banks of the Anacostia River. He first entered the essay competition as a seventh-grader but did not win.
This past school year, his eighth-grade English teacher, Geraine Moorhead Armstrong, gave her students a week to work on the essay.
In three paragraphs and fewer than 600 words, typed on the family computer, Anthony argued that youth violence results from teasing, bullying and fighting. He urged students to respond to bullies with restraint.
"I would walk away and go on about my business," he wrote. "If everyone did this same thing, the words 'youth violence' wouldn't even exist."
His suggestion for curbing youth violence was disarmingly simple: "Children have no time to commit violent acts if they are involved in afterschool programs."
As a fourth-grader at Payne Elementary School, the teenager recalled in an interview, he was bullied by another child who called him names. "I stood up for myself," he said, noting that he did not resort to violence. "I just said enough was enough."
At home for the summer, Anthony spends his time reading horror and mystery novels and avidly following basketball and football. He would like to be an astronomer, an aspiration he has harbored since visiting the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum at age 10.
His mother, Charlene Hicks, said that as a resident and parent, she is worried about the recent pattern of fatalities involving juveniles riding in stolen cars. "Kiddie car thieves are running around doing whatever they want," Hicks said. "If something goes wrong with these kids, they just put them on the street the next day."
The National Campaign to Stop Violence, an organization founded in 1996, runs the essay contest, which is in its ninth year. The effort is primarily funded by the Kuwait-America Foundation, a group that promotes better relations between Kuwait and the United States.
Daniel Q. Callister, a Washington lawyer who chairs the campaign, said he has read thousands of essays in which children talk about living in fear of violence. "We've got a culture where kids grow up thinking that violence is a way to get things done," he said. "It's not something you can change with metal detectors or security guards. You've got to change people."
The other area finalist, Breonca Smith, also from the District, recently finished seventh grade at Lincoln Multicultural Middle School in Northwest Washington. She did not attend last night's reception. In her essay, neatly handwritten on four pages, she evoked some of the dangers felt by urban children.
"Our youth as young as six years old are carrying hand guns, selling drugs, gambling for large sum of money and killing or hurting people for jewelry, name brand clothes and name brand shoes," Breonca wrote with the encouragement of a history teacher, Linda R. Winer, who coordinates the essay program at the school.
Still, Breonca concluded that for some children, violence motivates them to seek a way out.
"You have a few of our youth who are living in this cruel world amongst all of this violence, crime and hate and it affects them to the point where they will complete school, go to college and become someone in life because they are tired of the pain."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company