On Tuesday, Anacostia Senior High School students were shown a graphic video of the effects of gun violence. Yesterday, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno chose the Southeast Washington school to announce a new national strategy to reduce youth violence and prevent delinquency.
The plans and presentations ran head-on into skepticism from those most affected by juvenile crime. It was an attitude, students said, rooted in what they called a long list of broken promises from school and city leaders to improve their community, one of the District's poorest and highest-crime areas.
"What is there to be excited for?" asked Elaine Iseley, 15, a 10th-grader. "They're going to promise things and then say that there is no money. They came here just to say they came."
School administrators told students that the mere attendance of Reno, U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. and other leaders showed that Anacostia was not forgotten. But sophomore Nicole Fuqua, 16, said that "seeing is believing," a sentiment echoed by her classmates.
"They didn't even listen to what we had to say," said senior Melody Settles, 17, who was upset that Reno and Holder spoke to the school's 900 students briefly before leaving to make the formal announcement of her eight-step strategy in another part of the building.
But Reno said it is critical that adults spend more time listening. Her presentation, titled "Combating Violence and Delinquency: The National Juvenile Justice Action Plan," is billed as a strategy and guide to focus federal state and local resources to help reduce violence among youths. During the next year, Reno said, she will ask communities throughout the country to take up the plan.
Reno's appearance at the school came on the second day of an anti-violence forum for Anacostia's students. She was joined by Holder, Deputy Chief Charles R. Bacon of the D.C. police and Vincent Gray, executive director of Covenant House Washington, an Anacostia group that helps youths, among others who spoke about juvenile violence and guns. But two of the panelists, in particular, kept students' attention.
First there was Serek Matthews, 23, who told students that 36 hours earlier he held a dying 18-year-old in his arms, the victim of gun violence.
The same day, he said, his brother was shot and critically wounded.
"This problem has reached epidemic proportions," said Matthews, who acknowledges that he once did a lot of things he wasn't proud of, but has now started a program aimed at reforming street hustlers.
"We are not lost. We are not hopeless," he said. "We can first change the world by first changing ourselves."
A similar message was given by Desire Johnson, 25, whose poems celebrated black women, commemorated October's Million Man March and described the plight of drug dealers.
Johnson, who owns a T-shirt company and gives motivational speeches, told students of a time not long ago when she smoked marijuana, had casual sex and worked as a stripper.
At one point, Johnson said, she tried to kill herself but then managed to turn her life around.
"Everyone has a purpose in life," she told students, while giving them pointers on living more positively each day.
But she told students that living right is not easy.
"Doors are going to slam in your face," Johnson said. "Get back up and knock again.
"Most young black men are not scared to die. They're scared to live because it's a challenge."
Matthews warned that adults must be vigilant. "The street life is addictive," he said. "You can't just tell us to put the guns down, put the crack down. If we do that, what's the alternative?"
Holder told the students, most of whom are black, that the choices they make now are critical.
"Black people's time in this country has never been easy," he said. "The problem you face is one of violence. Guns and drugs are bad and must be avoided. It only takes one wrong choice for your life to be forever changed." CAPTION: Attorney General Janet Reno and U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. listen as Serek Matthews tells Anacostia Senior High School students of his experiences with violence.