hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

March 21, 2013

Let's give gangs a hefty boot!

Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — A recent headline in The Eagle-Tribune made me wince with anger.

“City gets $98K grant to fight gangs.”

A more preferred item would have been seeing our recreation department, library or high school music program benefit from such an allotment of money.

Not such an unfathomable sum being appropriated to fight crime in my city. It also posed some questions:

Are things really that bad in Haverhill that we need $98,000 from the state for such an inane cause? Can’t the police handle it? Can’t neighborhood watch groups accelerate their vigil? Can’t our city’s youth find something a bit more appropriate to pursue than travelling around in gangs and tearing our haven apart?

The story goes on to quote patrolmen who admitted violent crime and gang activity were on the upswing. There’s an apparent lack of numbers and resources to adequately respond to the increase in gang activity and violent crime.

Mercy!

Hoodlums are rampaging through neighborhoods, wielding baseball bats and causing bodily harm to others like something out of the pages of “West Side Story.” Five adults and three teenagers were arrested in one incident.

It crushes me to see innocent students being tormented by bullies. Mob scenes in our schools and neighborhoods are the devil’s advocate.

The newspaper story includes a quote from Mayor Jim Fiorentini, who readily admits that “gang members move in and out of our city all the time.”

No doubt, they will have already covered their tracks and caused bodily harm, pillaging the neighborhoods and defacing property. The state money is being awarded to communities like Haverhill with high levels of youth violence and gang problems.

Where do these gangs originate? Are they home-grown products or outsiders? Is the problem so rampant that you need such an amount of money to control it? I wonder, will that even be enough?

My recommendation — and it’s one that bears scrutiny because I’ve mentioned it before — carries some logic. The fact we have gangs raising havoc is because they are bored and out for thrills. It’s their way of keeping themselves “entertained,” as irrational as that may sound.

Children who become so vulnerable as to succumb to peer pressure must be directed toward a more peaceful path.

At a young age, they should be introduced to a positive environment at places like the Boys & Girls Club and YMCA. They should be given projects to organize and roles to manifest.

In schools, they should be welcomed into sports. If a child is not talented enough to make a varsity team, do NOT turn them away. Create a wholesome intramural environment. In the long run, thanks to such positive involvement, they will join a gang that’s productive and worthwhile.

We have such a treasure at the Citizens Center. In my opinion, it’s being underutilized. After the senior citizens leave the place at 4 p.m., why not turn it into a viable teen center — an offshoot of what you may find at the YMCA, but on a greater scale?

Take that $98K and use it more efficiently. Hire a part-time director, Tap the volunteer potential of this community and get adults in there who will train our teenagers in sex education and anti-violence, and provide homework help.

Put the center to good use on weekends with socials and conferences. Keep our kids off the streets and mobilize their energy toward better ground.

It’s like the old saying, “An idle mind leads to an idle body, which leads to trouble.”

Get your kid involved in the Scouting movement. We have a fine council in this city — people should take the time to discover this asset. Let the kids climb the Scouting ladder by earning badges of merit and service.

Give them a reason to excel, not to rebel.

The very same issue of the paper which featured the story about spending to fight gangs also printed a story below the fold about an autistic swimmer from Pinkerton who overcame a hardship to succeed in sports.

He could have quit, joined a gang and gotten himself into trouble, but he chose a different route — one that led him to become a role model for those with special needs. He wound up inspiring others.

In the long run, when students enter the adult world and try to secure a decent future, who will get the nod? The gang leader with a police record? Or the kid who secured decent grades, made a firm impression in school and the community, and became a source of pride to himself and his peers?

Good news is what promotes a city. If only the headlines were reversed — and the kid with autism got top billing on this day. Perhaps we could have saved face as a population. A sense of panic would have been alleviated.

So people like me would be more secure in their comfort zone.

Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.