Experts: School violence down, but offenders getting younger

Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2002

CHICAGO -- Twaun Asphy was hanging out on the playground before school when he saw them -- a crowd of students from a rival elementary school, approaching fast and swinging baseball bats and planks of wood at any child in their path.

''Run!'' the 12-year-old shouted to friends. A group of students grabbed him by the backpack, but he managed to break free and fled with dozens of others into Songhai Learning Institute, a public school in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago's far South Side.

Others, including a classmate, weren't so lucky.

''They grabbed my friend and hit him with a two-by-four in the back and in the eye,'' Twaun said. That boy was one of 18 Songhai students treated for cuts and bruises at hospitals after Thursday's fight.

Nearly two dozen students from nearby Curtis Elementary -- ages 10 to 14 -- were arrested for mob action. A day later, Songhai students were still frightened.

''I'm scared to even come to school,'' fifth-grader Donald Douglas said as he walked sister Diamond, a third-grader, to class. Both schools house classrooms for kindergarten through eighth grade.

Even some Chicago police veterans were startled at the age of the children involved. But child experts say that while school violence is down overall, the fight is one more sign that offending students are getting younger.

Experts say educating children -- the younger the better -- about alternatives to violence is vital.

''You need to teach kids social skills as much today as you need to teach them how to read,'' said Kevin Dwyer, an expert in child violence and bullying. ''Even in well-to-do communities, kids are raising themselves these days.''

Injuries in this most recent incident were comparatively minor. But authorities were taking the brawl seriously.

On Friday, Chicago police cars continually circled both schools. Outreach workers dressed in orange jackets also stood outside the doors at Songhai, offering whatever consolation they could to frightened students.

School officials say the fight was not gang-related. But neighborhood residents say tension between the schools is long-standing -- and began to worsen after a Halloween party at Songhai where Curtis students allegedly threw eggs.

''But this has become much more than a little egg-throwing,'' said Vicki Young, parent of a Songhai eighth-grader. ''Much, much more.''

Since Halloween, students say there have been smaller fights outside of school. They say students from each school also have left graffiti messages to taunt one another.

Songhai officials postponed plans to give students state standardized tests Friday -- a move explained in a letter to parents from John Bradley Jr., Songhai's principal.

''Unfortunately, events like these, and others around the country, can have an impact on children,'' Bradley said. He suggested working ''together as a community to provide a safe, high-quality education for our children.''

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