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Prayers over priorities in D.C.

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 24, 2009

The flier announcing the candlelight vigil contained a standard invitation: "Join families, friends, clergy, and community leaders."

The reason, however, was uncommon. "Surround the future site of the District's first Crime Forensic Lab!" it read. "Bring your prayers, libations, songs, pictures and personal expressions to bless the lab's success."

The vigil, scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m. on Sunday at 415 Fourth St. SW, is sponsored by Mothers of Unsolved Murders, a group led by charter member Valencia Mohammed.

Yes, it has come to this in the nation's capital: the application of spiritual devotion to an inanimate, yet-to-be constructed $133 million forensic laboratory. The sponsors say they have a good reason to seek divine intervention. According to the flier, the District has recorded 4,000 unsolved murders dating back to 1969, and, it says, "35,000 rape kits have not been processed by the FBI."

D.C. police department spokeswoman Traci Hughes said the unsolved murders and unprocessed sex kit claims are "extremely exaggerated." But visit the D.C. police Web site, and you will quickly discover that the city's crime-solving capacity needs all the help it can get. More than 600 unsolved murders are on the list, one from as far back as 1962. The list includes six women murdered in 1971 and 1972 by the so-called Freeway Phantom.

Official figures on unprocessed sex kits were unavailable. But Hughes reported that 60 percent of sex-offense cases recorded thus far in 2009 have been closed. In 2008, the police closed only 53 percent of such cases.

Such a low closure rate for sex offenses, as with unsolved murders, ought to be cause for alarm. It probably is elsewhere. Not in the District.

There are no rallies at Freedom Plaza over sexual mayhem and dead bodies on streets east of Rock Creek Park.

Instead, we resort to songs and prayers on behalf of a forensic lab because hope of stopping murder and rape in the first place has been all but abandoned. Or so it would seem.

This much is true: Words about murder and rape hardly pass through the lips of clergy, who much prefer getting worked up to a fare-thee-well over the possibility of same-sex marriage.

So, too, the media, which dwell on the relative merits of speed humps in upscale neighborhoods, political jockeying between Mayor Adrian Fenty and the D.C. Council, and teacher demands for respect from Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who's not inclined to give them any.

Oh sure, there are children trying to learn while street gangs are shooting outside their schools. And there may be girls worried about reaching maturity without getting sexually molested. But who really cares?

The politicians, prodded by the unions, prefer to bemoan cuts in the teaching ranks. Students, however, are left to contend with more than the loss of a teacher, guidance counselor or janitor. For many, their safety is at risk.

Gang activity is thriving in the school system, as rape and murder are doing well in the streets.

Ron Moten, co-founder of Peaceoholics and a Fenty administration favorite, recently gave me a copy of his organization's report on its violence-intervention activities in D.C. schools from October 2008 to May 2009. Peaceoholics claims to have intervened in 189 incidents in 11 schools, intervened in 44 crew-(gang-)related incidents in seven schools and identified the following schools with crews: "Cardozo, 20; Dunbar, 14; Spingarn, 10; Ballou, 23; Hart, 11."

I asked the school system about those claims.

D.C. public schools spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway wrote in an e-mail: "We can tell you that our gang investigators, in consultation with the Roving Leaders, have identified the following 'crew/gangs' in the schools mentioned below:

"- Cardozo Senior High School -- 4 crews/gangs - Dunbar Senior High School -- 6 crews/gangs - Spingarn Senior High School -- 6 crews/gangs - Ballou Senior High School -- 6 crews/gangs - Hart Middle School -- 6 crews/gangs (the students attending Hart are siblings of the Ballou students)."

Surprise -- the numbers from the school system and Peaceoholics don't match.

The chancellor and Moten really need to talk.

Here's a real-world glimpse:

11:21 a.m., incoming e-mail Friday:

"Are you aware that Friendship Edison had to let all the children out of school early? Because there was a threat that 37th was going to shoot the school up. They are the same guys who did the Clay Street shooting and the summer shooting at the Kenilworth block party. That's how serious this school and 'hood beef situation is!"

12:45 p.m., confirming e-mail from Donald Hense, chairman of Friendship Charter School: "The police told us to let out an hour early. There were six of them."

The politicians may not know -- or care -- about the extent of gang activity in the schools, but students -- the ones who pay attention in class, do their homework and try to get along with their teachers and classmates -- know all about the crews.

And they have to live with the fear and intimidation that accompany that knowledge -- just as Mothers of Unsolved Murders must live with the pain of not knowing who killed their children, just as sexual assault victims must live in fear of attackers still at large.

Just as our self-absorbed city leaders with their badly skewed priorities must live with themselves.

kingc@washpost.com

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