WHEN I was a student at Howard University back in the dark ages, classmates used to boast about coming from tough, inner-city neighborhoods.
It was almost like playing the dozens, the way friends would try to one-up each others' tall tales. I don't remember, though, ever hearing anything back then that could compare with the experiences that some kids in Philly witness on a regular basis.
I'm thinking of two murders involving youngsters that took place this past fall. All killings are tragic, but these were particularly heart-wrenching because they involved teens -- babies, really. And to make things worse, their suspected killers are teenagers, as well.
Back in October, Duval DeShields, 14, was shot down after he reportedly had brandished a BB gun toward a group of preteens who had been fighting. Afterward, murder suspect Dimitrius Brown, 19, allegedly confronted the youngster known for his dancing and infectious smile on 10th Street near Thompson and asked, "What makes you think it's cool for you to pull a gun on one of my young bulls?" Duval tried to run away but Brown reportedly shot him in the head.
Duval's friends and classmates were inconsolable at the loss of the friend they called DJ. Some couldn't even bring themselves to enter Shiloh Apostolic Temple at 15th and Master Streets, where his funeral took place. Many stood around outside in groups, comforting each other. They were babies wiping the tears of other babies. The sight of all that sobbing and carrying on was too much for Darin Toliver, vice president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work Inc.
"I actually had to leave. Just hearing the grief and watching the kids leave in the middle of a sermon," Toliver told me last week.
State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D, Phila.) spoke at Duval's services and also was deeply moved at the outpouring. He decided to put aside "whatever other plans I had and to stop and get a handle on what is happening with these kids."
"Someone should have said to Duval, 'You don't carry around a BB gun,' and to the 19-year-old [suspect] that there's a way to resolve disputes without using guns," Thomas added.
The Pennsylvania lawmaker left the funeral that day with a fresh resolve to do something specifically for youngsters traumatized by violence. But before Thomas could get around to it, he was shaken by the murder of another teenager.
On Nov. 1, Saleem West, a 16-year-old junior at Delaware Valley Charter High School, was riding his bicycle with a friend when he was shot in the back and killed on West Sedgley Avenue near North 22nd Street. Again, the victim's young friends and classmates were left stunned at the senselessness of it all. Nearly 200 grief-stricken people showed up for his vigil.
"Those two incidences were the straw that said, we have to do this now," Thomas told me last week.
It took a couple of months, but he has organized a town hall meeting for Thursday night from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. at Temple University's Howard Gittis Student Center. There, community leaders, residents and others are slated to come together and discuss ways to help young people who may have witnessed or otherwise been impacted by violence.
On Day Two of the conference, also at the student center on North 13th Street near Montgomery, Thomas has arranged for a daylong session for local family court judges, behavioral health specialists and others to come up with concrete, doable solutions for getting help to youngsters. Thomas, for instance, plans to suggest creating a 24-hour hotline where people can request a crisis team that would show up to assist communities in the aftermath of a killing.
"We don't have that information consolidated anywhere," Thomas pointed out.
If he gets his way, counselors would descend on a neighborhood in mourning to offer their services and also do follow-up sessions.
Too often, kids are expected to shake off whatever it was that might have happened in their neighborhood over the weekend and to show up at school ready to learn. The reality, though, is a lot of these youngsters are walking around deeply traumatized and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
Toliver, a Ph.D. candidate whose dissertation is on the causes and motivations that lead young African American males to commit homicide, supports Thomas' idea of a crisis hotline and as an example, pointed to the vigil held for Duval.
"I'm standing out there with the police on Thompson Street and kids are just walking around," recalled Toliver, who plans to attend the conference. "It was almost like The Walking Dead. They were walking around confused, hurt, traumatized, emotionless. Who do you call? Who do you go to? There should be a crisis entity at least from a macro level."