As violence escalates, urban youth become emotionally scarred


October 02, 1991|By Jean Marbella

Ethel says she's seen one shooting; her sister Ebony corrects her, no, we've seen three. Reggie and his cousin are going to different middle schools next year, and their disagreement is over who is more likely to get shot.

Davon, Darnell and Xavier start listing what they've seen, and soon the details are tumbling over each other with numbing repetitiveness: My cousin got shot; my other cousin got shot; my uncle got shot; Tiffany, James, a teen-ager on the corner, some police officers -- they all got shot.

Many Baltimore youngsters have gotten caught in the cross-fire of urban violence.

Already this year, 21 Baltimore children hit by gunfire have been rushed to either Johns Hopkins Hospital or University of Maryland Medical Center -- compared to 20 during all of last year -- prompting a group of Hopkins doctors last week to call for an end to this "epidemic" of violence.

Similarly, psychologists, teachers and others who work with children increasingly are concerned that this constant exposure to crime will turn a generation of city kids -- at least those lucky enough to survive -- into shell-shocked and emotionally scarred adults who know only violence as a way of life.

"When there is just one incident [of violence], adults can reassure children that it's OK, things are going to get back to normal -- and, indeed, as the days go by, children are reassured because they do see that things get back to normal," said child psychologist James Garbarino, whose recently published book, "No Place to Be a Child," looks at children growing up in "war zones," be it Nicaragua, the West Bank or an American public housing project.

"But with chronic violence, kids are more vulnerable. You can't tell them everything will be fine, everything will get back to normal -- because the violence is normal," he said.

Adding to the problem is that crime most often afflicts neighborhoods already beset by stresses like poverty, substandard housing, unstable family structures and poor medical care, making children who live there particularly ill-equipped to handle the added turmoil of violence.

"Most kids can tolerate or overcome one or two risk factors," Mr. Garbarino said. "For many inner-city kids, violence is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. They have the least resources to cope with the most problems. It can make them hyperactive and aggressive. Identifying with aggression is a way of feeling safe."

"There definitely has been a change in the children," agreed Shirley Johnson, principal of Edgewood Elementary School and a 29-year veteran of Baltimore City schools. "You see it even in the younger children. If someone bumps into you, pow -- you turn around and hit. The natural reaction -- at a younger and younger age -- is to strike out."

Educators have come to accept that not even the very youngest of children can be sheltered from the reality of crime.

"Guns are their favorite toys," sighed Barbara Smith, director of two Head Start preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds in Baltimore. "We don't allow toy guns here, but they can make a gun out of anything."

"One child told me he heard shooting one night, and he was scared and he crawled under his bed," said Aleane Harding, a Head Start teacher. "He is 3 years old. It's not exciting for them. They are really afraid."

One of the first things Head Start children learn, Ms. Smith said, is how to dial 911 and why.

In certain city neighborhoods, children get an early education of a different sort as well.

"This little boy, he got shot in the head," one youngster frolicking in a playground said, referring to Quantae Johnson, the 4-year-old who last month was struck by a stray bullet from outside while he was in his grandmother's East Baltimore home.

"I was in the store," said Xavier Brooks, a 12-year-old who lives in Walbrook. "They just started shooting at my cousin. Everyone just hit the floor."

"I was in the house. I was just playing. I thought it was a firecracker, since it was not too far from the Fourth of July," said his friend, Darnell Smith, 11. "Then they said it was Tiffany [Smith]. I started crying."

Darnell and Davon Bose, 8, are both cousins of Tiffany, the 6-year-old girl who was killed in the cross-fire of an argument on a Walbrook street in July. The shooting crystallized sentiments in the neighborhood, and the rest of the city, as the pigtailed little girl's photo was widely played in the media and became symbolic of the senseless carnage suffered by the innocent.

"It makes me sad," Davon said. "They should take the people who shoot and put them in jail."

Such stories apparently are representative of many more -- a 1988 study by Dr. Jack Gladstein, a University of Maryland Medical Center pediatrician, found that teens in the hospital's neighborhood have witnessed or know victims of an astonishingly high number of crimes. Nearly one-fourth, for example, had witnessed a murder and more than 40 percent had seen a shooting.

"The most important thing is that they are being exposed to violence, and no one knows for sure how it affects individual kids or whole populations of kids," said Dr. Gladstein, who is currently finishing up an expanded version of his study.

The children themselves don't have answers to such global questions either -- their concerns are smaller, their solutions simpler.

"I'd like to live somewhere quiet," Darnell said with a sigh.

"I'd like to move away to Virginia," said Ebony Johnson, 10, who has visited relatives there. "It's like . . . country. It's like, when you walk around, there are no people or nothing. Just peace and quiet. Peace and quiet."

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