Teens who ride Metro do grow up

The Metro station remains crowded late at night in the District's popular Dupont Circle neighborhood.
The Metro station remains crowded late at night in the District's popular Dupont Circle neighborhood. (Astrid Riecken)
By Clinton Yates
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 10:31 PM

Not all kids who fight, eat, curse, play loud music and generally harass riders on Metro grow up to be disrespectful thugs and menaces to society. I know, because I used to be one of them.

I saw, broke up and was in numerous fights on trains, assaults on buses and wild arguments in stations. Nothing was ever as bad as the vicious encounters that populate YouTube today, but when I was a teenager in the '90s, a harmless scrap over an occasional beef was not out of the ordinary. Thankfully, none of that reckless horseplay ever landed me or anyone I knew in jail or the hospital.

Like a lot of teens, I grew out of that kind of nonsense as soon as I had something better to do.

I concede that Metro needs to do something drastic to curb the recent spike in violence across the system. But the latest proposal by the agency and D.C. public school system is a slap in the face to students and a demoralizing blow for those of us raised in the city.

Last month, citing a rise in thefts by youths across the system, Metro and D.C. officials announced a plan to distribute electronic ID passes to 1,500 students that would restrict use of subsidized public transportation. Under the pilot program, students would be identified by name and school and could be held to a curfew.

Translation: Let's put a scarlet letter on D.C. public school kids, many of whom are black and Latino, to shift the focus from larger security problems.

Back in my day, the last thing on my mind when going back and forth on the Red Line was whether or not my music was too loud or if some random person didn't like my foul mouth. I was often in my own world, not concerned with pesky adults. I realize now that I surely offended some around me.

I now know that those bus and train trips were vital to my development as an independent person. Long before the days of SmarTrip cards and train arrival signs, Metro took me to places I probably would never have made it to.

The regional connectivity that so many area residents now take for granted gave curious kids like me the means to explore their surroundings. The long-term psychological effects of limiting where public school students can go would be devastating.

Not every D.C. public school student is a problem child. How would you feel if you were a good kid who was suddenly lumped in with the pockets of jerks who turn riding the train into an opportunity for crime or confrontation?

I give credit to Metro Transit Police for working with schools to communicate about which potential skirmishes on campus could spill over into the transit system. But I have a fundamental problem with the public school system and Metro working together to set up a game of mousetrap for students.

The overall context of the District's history of home rule is paramount here. This city has enough identity issues - with Congress technically controlling every dime it spends and with no representation to show for it.

The last thing we need is another debasing label for our youths that effectively reinforces the crippling assertion that the natives can't control themselves without outside intervention.

These days, I greet bus drivers and station managers. That kid who could get rowdy in an instant is long gone, and I gladly put up with the rampant issues that affect Metro because I remember how it got me around when there were no other options.

I can't say I'd feel the same way if I had been tagged and monitored as a potential criminal by the system when I was just trying to deal with the realities of coming of age in the nation's capital.

Clinton Yates is local news editor for Express.

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