- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2000

Job opportunities, public safety and recreation are the top priorities of District of Columbia youths who voted yesterday during a citywide summit.

The 1,000-plus energetic young people were attending "The City is Mine: Youth Summit 2000" at the Omni Shoreham Hotel on Calvert Street NW. They had come to tell Mayor Anthony A. Williams about the issues they find important.

"If you give us your ideas, your ideas will change this city," the mayor said.

The ideas from the summit will lay the groundwork for planning funding levels in the city budget and for the mayor's second strategic plan for the District much in the way the citizens' summit did exactly a year ago yesterday.

"You being here shows it's important to be involved in the decisions that affect our lives," Mr. Williams told the youths as the summit opened. "We're putting the whole resources of this city behind making every opportunity available to you. You need to break it down for us."

During electronic voting and small-group discussion, the participants, ages 14 to 21, said public safety while walking on the streets and interacting with Metropolitan Police officers are of paramount concern.

Safety ranked highest among the seven issues from which the youths selected.

Asked how safe they felt, 35 percent voted that they "rarely feel safe."

Those in next largest group, 27 percent, indicated they have been both perpetrators and victims of a crime.

Asked where they feel unsafe, 50 percent said on city streets.

Some youths expressed concern about treatment by D.C. police officers. Marcus Watson, 15, a student at Benjamin Banneker High School in Northwest, recommended that police undergo more training to eliminate racial profiling and occasional abuses of power.

Jaime Pineda, 17, a junior at Bell Multicultural High School in Northwest, got a better understanding of why police draw their weapons by watching officers present several skits of potentially deadly situations.

"I learned what the police go through when they deal with a situation," he said. "They're handling it the best way they can."

Solving the long-standing problems with education in the D.C. public schools was another high priority. Summit participants chose student motivation as the area that needs the most improvement, over quality of teaching, facilities, equipment and books.

But Shalonda Hunter, 19, a senior at Spingarn High School in Northeast, said underfunding of schools has had a negative impact. She said that until this school year, there were never enough books for everyone in her class to take one home, so they were forced to share both in school and outside.

"They need to increase funding," she said. "They build more jails, so what about schools? Why not use that money on schools?"

Many youths have high hopes, though. When voting on their education goals, 59 percent said they plan to attend college and earn graduate and postgraduate degrees.

Miss Hunter and several others identified the District's dropout rate and teacher shortages as other problems.

The youths said job opportunities and recreation, particularly after-school programs, are important as well.

Marcus said the government should do more to help young people find jobs, not only in the District, but even abroad.

"I'm not just going to limit myself to the city," he said. "I've got my sights set to go abroad to other countries."

One obstacle to jobs, said Jefferson Junior High School freshman Kelly Brown, is the stigma of juvenile arrests for minor infractions.

"That takes away from jobs and job training because a [criminal] record keeps you from getting a job," the 14-year-old said.

Kelly and others at his table echoed a comment by Mr. Williams that job availability will reduce crime.

"With good jobs, there's less reason to commit crimes," Mr. Williams said.

Recreation programs also should help stem crime, several youths said.

One youth said young teens are being drawn into a web of crime and narcotics because there aren't enough after-school programs.

"My main concern is the community. You got kids selling drugs, 13-year-olds smoking weed [marijuana]. We need more rec centers," said the youth, who only gave his first name, Marcus.

Yesterday's summit was a high-tech affair. Youths voted by punching buttons on $800 wireless pads. A facilitator at each table typed in their suggestions and sent the text by e-mail to a large computer server.

The results will be analyzed and reviewed for a December meeting of D.C. agency heads, community leaders, youth representatives and Mr. Williams.

A surprise appearance at yesterday's summit by former Mayor Marion Barry brought loud cheers from the youths. It was Mr. Barry who established the summer youth employment program to address high unemployment among D.C. residents aged 14 to 21. It offered a minimum of seven weeks' employment in both the public and private sectors and became a fixture in the city's $3.3 billion budget in 1979. Nearly $9 million was set aside for the initial program, which by 1993 had become a $12 million budget item.

Mr. Barry told The Washington Times youths "must have the overall feeling they can succeed."

"There's a lot of negative feelings around, and they shouldn't let those negative feelings drag them down into a ditch. They have to feel they can be anything they feel like," said Mr. Barry, who also created the Marion Barry Leadership Institute in 1979 to foster civic responsibility among youths.

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