Teens on school violence: 'Everybody's dying young'

Darin Toliver (left) and Chad Dion Lassiter, of Black Men at Penn, speak with students yesterday at South Phila. High.

Britney Harper knows all too well about the pain of losing a loved one to violence.

It has been nearly a month since her boyfriend, Tyree Parks, 18, a standout South Philly High football star, was gunned down on his way from coaching a basketball game at another high school.

"I'm sad all the time. I'm crying all the time," Britney, 15, said when reached last night. "They shot him over some dumb stuff."

Britney's plight is one of thousands of examples of city youths who suffer the devastating affects of violence committed by their peers, a dilemma that city and district officials say requires urgent intervention.

During a group session hosted at the school by the social group Black Men at Penn, Britney and roughly 20 other South Philly High teens weighed in on the matter.

"Everybody's dying young these days," said Lyonna Whitmore, 15. "They're fighting over 'hoods."

When asked what may have sparked last week's flash-mob rampage in Center City, in which 16 teens were arrested, Mahdiyha Harper, who is no relation to Britney, cited peer pressure. "It's a group of followers who want to be down," she said.

District and school officials, along with school and city police, will decide how to proceed with disciplining youths involved in the melee, after they review surveillance footage and interview many of the youths who were there, said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Chad Dion Lassiter, who heads the organization and who hosts the weekly discussions at South Philly High with different groups of youth, said that by the end of the school year "we hope to have instilled in them a moral compass."

But at the moment, said freshman Danielle Williams, the actions of a few bad apples negatively affect them all.

"[People] have this misperception and we go and do what with that perception?" she asked.

"We prove them right."

Darin Toliver, who co-facilitates the talks, also stressed to the youth the importance of accepting other cultures.

"It's important to get you to understand them and remove the lens from yourself," Toliver said, referring to the number of immigrant students at the school. "Imagine how they feel."

Violent incidents in district schools have been on the decline, and at a School Reform Commission meeting earlier yesterday, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman reiterated her pledge to continue the trend, laying out the district's plans to team up with city agencies and community groups.

In about the last 18 months, 274 students have been expelled from district schools, and officials have handed down more than 18,000 suspensions during the school year, she said.

"What I've said before and I'll say it again today: Youth violence affects everyone's life, that's why everyone needs to be a part of this solution," she said.

Flanked by several top city officials and community members, Ackerman said that the violence committed by young people has become a cycle that's taken its toll on not just the young, but the community as a whole.

Ackerman, along with Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, District Attorney Seth Williams and others, said they would take joint measures to combat the issue.

Their plans include seating a panel to examine the crisis, establishing chapters of youth violence networks in middle and high schools, and enforcing restorative justice programs for students who've been expelled or suspended, Ackerman said.

Officials also propose starting a program to combat the city's truancy program. Officials reported that roughly 12,000 of 160,000+ students skip school each day.