Back of the bus

December 15, 2007

Last week's assault on a No. 27 bus in Hampden was sensational news for a few days. Middle school students riding home at the end of the day seriously beat up a woman, pushed her off the bus, and turned on another passenger but were thwarted by the driver and the arrival of police.

The Maryland Transit Administration said it was looking at the case as a possible hate crime, because the woman was white and her attackers black, and some transit activists essentially said that students and regular riders should be segregated onto different buses.

This reaction makes us uneasy.

A "hate crime" is one of those things that gets harder and harder to define the more you look into it, unless it's so obvious as to be beyond debate. Are all crimes by one race against another hate crimes? To some little extent, probably they are. But when a pack of adolescents looking for trouble senses vulnerability in someone, that can go very badly and race might have nothing to do with it. Once a punch or a slap is thrown, everything can escalate mindlessly. This might describe what happened on that bus.

So should ordinary transit users be spared the company of teenagers just released for the day? The MTA argues that young people can't be treated differently, or held to different standards, and we agree. Segregated buses (and we use that term mindfully) tell students that they are not accepted as members of society. Some among them will act accordingly.

The reality now is that a certain number of buses, like the one on which the incident occurred, begin their runs at schools. They are in essence dedicated to kids, but once they've set out, they have to make all stops.

In reaction to the assault, the MTA is getting together with school officials to map out ways to address behavioral problems on buses - to impress upon students that they will be held to the same standards of conduct on a bus as they are in school or in any public place. This week began with another interracial assault on a bus, in the Brooklyn neighborhood; MTA police have been deployed to potential problem routes, and a program to install video cameras on all buses will continue.

These steps are prudent, but the issue is one of learned appropriate behavior. The lessons begin at home, and continue at school. MTA buses are immersed in the society they serve; that there are so few criminal incidents on them is a good reflection on Baltimore. That a harmless woman was badly beaten on the No. 27 should be a cautionary alarm - a warning that all is not well in the city.

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