What's the matter with kids today?

April 01, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

TODAY'S teen-agers, writes high school freshman Jeannette Fornadel in the Reading Eagle/Times, ''are assumed to be juvenile delinquents, shoplifters or worse.'' And the media make things worse, she charges, portraying teen-agers ''as brainless, bubble-gum chewing, hormone-laden slobs whose concerns center only around the opposite sex.''

But recently the National League of Cities pegged growing youth crime as the top concern of 406 municipal officials polled. Some 62 percent said youth crime was worsening. Fifty percent found gangs increasing, 45 percent pointed to mounting drug use, teen-age pregnancy and school violence, and 38 percent said family stability was deteriorating.

The mounting youth problems, said Columbus (Ohio) Mayor Greg Lashutka, president of the league, ''tells us that an indispensable future asset of our communities is at risk.''

So what to do about it? Focus on trying teen-age offenders in adult courts? Install metal detectors at school doors? Invent programs for social workers to deliver to kids who have too much time on their hands?

The basic problem, says Charles Bray, president of the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin, is Americans' ''progressive disengagement from the lives of kids.''

We live, he says, ''in the most age-segregated society in human history.'' Indeed, only one home in four has a school-age child; the vast majority of adults don't speak with a kid once in a day.

When several Wisconsin foundations surveyed both adults and teen-agers on what it's like for young people in their communities, the adults said ''dull'' and suggested programs like midnight baseball. The kids said ''crashingly boring,'' rejected the midnight games, but said they wanted ways to get involved, in some significant way, in their communities.

Asked about kids' role models, the adults named Michael Jordan; the teen-agers tended to say ''an adult who cares about me.''

Racine, as a result, has set out to become, within five years, ''America's most youth-friendly community.'' Leaders include the head of the United Way, the police chief and human-services director. They've joined to create a pilot family-and-children resource center that combines a recreation center with family-support services and community policing.

Ideally, high schools would have opened their doors to such inventive, shared activities. But as Mr. Bray comments: ''The single most youth-unfriendly institution in American society is schools. It's not very good at educating; it's a warehouse where kids are parked until they are 16, told to shut up and take notes. It's cut off from any consequential involvement in the community.''

But what do kids want? The new Racine Community Coalition for Youth engaged a diverse group of young people to design a community-wide survey of high school students. Among the 2,246 questionnaires returned, the biggest votes were for ''more things to do,'' sports, cleanup campaigns, a dance club, youth clubs, hangouts, prevention activities, curfew extensions. What the young people said they didn't want was more violence, cops, racism, pollution, bars, guns and alcohol.

''Agents Who Care''

Three Racine insurance agents -- calling themselves ''Agents Who Care'' -- funded a dance that was planned by teens. The admission profits are going to set up a model teen court in a middle school, hearing cases that would otherwise move through the school disciplinary system.

In another outreach, the Racine Community Foundation and United Way are funding a ''Youth as Resources'' program that empowers a panel of teen-agers to make small awards ($200 to $2,000) for projects they believe will make Racine a more youth-friendly community.

Major youth-outreach programs have begun in recent years in such communities as Westchester County, N.Y., Oakland, Calif., Columbus, Ind., Kansas City, Peoria, Ill., St. Louis and San Diego. It will be years before we know whether they reduce youth crime or strengthen youth citizenship and engagement in American life. More vital than simply launching programs, says Mr. Bray, is ''a culture shift -- providing opportunities for young people's consequential involvement in their communities.''

In some cities, the public is even getting to read about teen- agers' interests and volunteering efforts, not just the dreary litany of school disorders, drug and booze parties and teen-age crime. The Racine Journal-Times publishes a special youth page, with reporters assigned to the youth beat. The Reading Eagle/Times runs a weekly ''Voices'' section, written by and for teen-agers.

If American newspapers did more of this, perhaps more of us would start shifting our attitudes and engaging teen-agers in our lives and communities.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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