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OPINION: Battle youth violence with opportunities

Wednesday's shooting of a 16-year-old in Bay Shore who was walking home from night classes and the violence at Hempstead High School earlier this week serve as stark reminders that young people in certain communities risk their lives every day merely by trying to obtain an education.

Youth violence and a gang war are reaping a mounting death toll in communities across Long Island. The casualties of this conflict are children, teenagers and young adults - as well as the parents and families left to bury the bodies.

I'm 31, and I have attended 29 wakes for the victims of this war. The latest were a 20-year-old boy in Brentwood and a 19-year-old girl and her 14-month-old son from Hempstead. I dare not call these victims men and women; they were merely children. This war and these deaths defy the natural order of life, as parents endure the heartache of burying children, and grandparents outlive their grandchildren.

Our local government pours millions of dollars into its offensives in this war, when you consider costs associated with courts, detention, enforcement and triage. Communities abdicate responsibility, as law enforcement officials conduct massive sweeps and bust "cells" of what they deem "criminal enterprises" - believing society can arrest its way out of this crisis. Courts and prisons are filled with youthful offenders wasting their teenage years behind bars, as the rest of their peers become numb to the loss of life and freedom.

Even our school grounds resemble prisons. Armed police patrol hallways, and metal detectors screen our children for weapons. Schools build up their arsenal by providing a temporary and false sense of security - after all, it's quicker and easier than addressing the reasons youths join gangs or carry weapons for protection in the first place.

Having them remove their shoes, take off their belts, and receive pat-downs while entering their middle school or high school is supposed to make them feel safe. Some even think it provides a nurturing environment for learning. But at the same time, certain schools do not provide after-school activities, textbooks or, in some cases, heat. The collateral damage is the loss of innocence, freedom, safety and security for our youth. When will we realize that punitive policies are failing them?

Our elected officials need to prioritize gang and youth violence with the same degree of urgency they have applied to the current heroin crisis. If our representatives placed the same value on the lives of young people of color that they have accorded to teenage heroin users in other communities, then the gang war could finally cease.

I long for the day they realize gang involvement, like drug addiction, is best eliminated or reduced by prevention, rehabilitation and redirection. The cure to this plague is in community-based programs that provide young people with meaningful alternatives - and thus reduce the number of them involved in gangs.

The current approach - the law-enforcement dominated "war on gangs" - will yield the same failed results as the "war on drugs" (before this new push for rehabilitation and redirection for heroin users). We should learn from our mistakes and consider declaring peace on our children and communities. After all, the "enemy combatants" are our children, and it is our community in which this war will be fought.

Until then, community-based groups that have proven most effective and are on the brink of extinction will continue the struggle. And our only weapons will be love and opportunity for our kids.

We hope that one day, communities, schools and the government will decide to join us.


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