- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

The panoramic view of the Washington skyline as seen from the 11th-floor staff dining room of the Arlington County Jail is spectacular.

But Kourteny Taylor, 19, an Arlington man who has been serving time for a 2004 armed robbery in Rossyln, has never seen the awesome sight.

“I haven’t seen this view in a year or smelled the grass; all I ever see from my window is a building,” Taylor told a group of students, selected members of Youth Leadership Washington, during an anti-gang-violence summit sponsored by Leadership Washington on Wednesday.

“So do whatever you got to do; get your education and stay away from the street,” Taylor advised the students, who dined on prison luncheon fare of barbecued chicken, rice and broccoli, or opted for a hastily fried cheeseburger.

Taylor, very bright, very articulate and very remorseful, seemed the atypical county jail inmate. When he was arrested “just four weeks before graduation” from Wakefield High School, he was “a good student” headed to Norfolk State University on a football scholarship.

“I didn’t see myself getting locked up,” Taylor said. “I wasn’t the type.”

Taylor said it was a rainy day and he missed the bus, so he caught a ride from school with a group of guys he knew but didn’t really hang with. He admitted that he made the wrong choice when he decided to participate in the robbery they were planning rather than be beaten by them.

Taylor shamefully noted that he was the first person in his family to be incarcerated.

“I never in a million years saw myself standing in a blue jumpsuit talking to y’all; I expected to be on the other side, looking in like you,” Taylor said. Then he described a tedious yet tenuous life inside the cellblock.

But, “stuff can pop off all the time. … You can easily get caught up,” he warned.

His message was not lost on this group of high achievers. They, too, could easily find themselves “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Taylor said, “and make the wrong decision.”

Succinctly capturing Taylor’s message, Hillary Aronoff of the Charles E. Smith Day School, said, “Don’t mess up.”

“It was humbling,” Shane Stephens, a sophomore at Wilson High School in the District, said about Taylor’s presentation. Moving here from New York City, he has more positive activities that help him “stay focused.” This quiet, busy young man is involved in three sports, takes advanced classes and sought selection into Youth Leadership in an effort to get into a school such as Michigan State to get employment in sports medicine.

Earlier in the day, Hillary and Shane listened to the panel discussions that featured Arlington Sheriff Beth Arthur and Thandor Miller, program associate with the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. Later, they listened to comments from Arlington County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Chief Judge Esther Wiggins Lyles and sat in on her afternoon courtroom session.

Anti-violence resource guides and reference materials were distributed, including a map listing the region’s most notable gangs, including Arlington’s Southside Locos and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).

On Tuesday, a federal jury convicted two MS-13 members, Ismael J. Cisneros, 26, and Oscar A. Grande, 22, in the 2003 stabbing death of Brenda Paz, who was 17 years old and pregnant. Both face the death penalty. Two other men were acquitted after the jury deliberated for four days.

According to Taylor, who “sits at the same table with MS-13 gang members,” the rival gangs get along better inside the facility than on the street, perhaps because of the institution’s reward and threat system. Nor do they want to draw the attention of the state’s gang task force.

During the tour of the 719-bed facility and intake center, lead in part by Capt. Jay Ternent, the students grew more silent as they peered into small, spare cells while nearby complacent inmates played cards and basketball and talked on telephones.

Barbara M. Donnellan, president of Youth Leadership and director of management and finance in Arlington, said these students are future leaders, not troubled children. “The real goal of the day was to expose these students to various types of government, crime and justice leaders who deal with the issue that they’re reading about in the newspaper every day or encountering in school,” she said.

“We’re planting the seeds in these kids’ heads. We want them to think about solutions.”

Students Joy Kazadi of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria and Morgan Marshall of Elizabeth Seton in Maryland worked intently in smaller groups at the Arlington County Central Library to determine whether solutions, developed in earlier phases of the project by adult leaders and aimed at curbing the area’s growing gang problem, were realistic based on their adolescent experiences.

The young groups, assisted by adult mentors, tackled the areas of prevention, suppression and intervention. One common theme from the students was the need for more after-school programs “between the hours of 3 and 6 when you might get into trouble because your parents aren’t home,” Hillary said.

Another was the need for role models or mentors, who don’t have to be stars, but “just someone to talk to and tell your problems to,” said Remington Green, who attends St. John’s College High School in the District.

Then, the group members were asked to volunteer for activities designed to get area officials to listen to their viewpoints. For example, one might testify before a city council hearing about the negative impact of cutting after-school programs. Another might meet with the police chief to discuss the benefit of developing relationships with gang members by using small community policing units such as the “GIPs” in Columbia Heights in the District.

“We don’t want this to be just a theoretical exercise,” said Dana Stebbins, founder of the Leadership Washington anti-violence task force. “This is a call to action.”

Taylor, who wants to teach history someday, issued his own call to action: “Better yourselves and move forward and make smarter decisions.”

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