In Savannah, teenagers seem to be capturing the headlines on a regular basis recently:
Two brothers, ages 13 and 16, were arrested for robbing a SunTrust bank on Mall Boulevard in June. (The same bank was hit again, by different robbers, just last week.)
On July 5, three teenaged girls were handcuffed by a female Savannah Police officer who allegedly was attacked by the trio while she and other officers were trying to arrest an 18-year-old auto theft suspect. (This week’s cover image and the photo at right are from that incident.)
Several more incidents involving young teens occurred in August (see sidebar).
Call it boredom or the rush of being involved in criminal activities, but crime seems to have found fresh blood in early teenaged youth.
Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics indicate that teenage crime went down more than 34 percent during the late 1990s. But a big spike occurred for some reason in 2001, when those crimes went up 19 percent -- and have been steadily rising since.
Speaking on behalf of the Chatham County Juvenile Court, Assistant Public Defender Mark Nathan says, “The vast majority of kids get involved in criminal acts because of their parents’ lack of supervision. Ultimately, it boils down to kids coming from homes where parents aren’t keeping close watch on them.”
One local public middle school has a written policy stating that students caught fighting will be handcuffed. This keeps students in check for miniscule amounts of time, but the deterrent doesn’t stop the inevitable. Students try the policy and the consequences are put into operation.
Those apprehended are usually seen by all, sitting in the main hallway of the school with their hands behind their backs like common criminals. The students are released only when a parent shows up or after being taken to the Chatham County Youth Detention Center.
It’s an embarrassing and humiliating situation for the students, especially when classmates mock them and laugh at them. Usually, after the students return to school they retaliate against those who have taunted them.
Many administrators and teachers say off-the-record that that type of system doesn’t agree with their philosophy, but realize that the school superintendent and chief security resource officer are in charge and have allowed the system to be put into place.
Teachers sometimes describe teenage classroom behavior in three layers: a large portion of students eager to learn; a bottom layer of troublemakers constantly making things miserable for everyone; and those caught up in the middle who want to be a part of the top layer, but are often too busy trying to impress the bottom.
The same teachers often go on to say that what happens in school also happens on the street.
The new rise in teen crime has been festering for decades. Indeed, many police now say they are arresting the children of gangsters from the early 1990s.
A main reason for crime cited by many of the arrestees is that kids want some type of recognition.
“Being wanted for murder is better than not being wanted at all,” was the 1994 statement by a 14-year-old murder suspect incarcerated in California.
“What do you want to be if you grow up?” says the caption of a newspaper cartoon showing two teenaged black boys sitting on the stairs of their house bouncing a basketball.
But Johnnie Myers, associate professor of criminal justice and correction at Savannah State University, doesn’t see things literally in black and white.
“It’s a very complex issue and it will need a concerted effort from everybody to come up with a solution,” says Myers. “Most teenagers are not caught up in a lot of bad things. Teenagers don’t have many role models and they need to be rewarded for doing positive things.
“We (SSU) have unlocked the keys to potential in the collaborative effort to help teenagers and wish the business community would get involved more with them.”
Sociologists nationwide have also chronicled the impact of industrial decline on the disadvantaged.
William Julius Wilson, Harvard University sociologist, says, “When jobs left, communities fell apart. Left without money or skills, men were no longer seen by women as reliable breadwinners and crime became an avenue for some to regain respect.”
Some suggest that most of the problems come from single parent homes where the mother has to work to keep her family intact -- or not work and have to depend on government agencies to foot the bill.
Living in poverty with either a mother or father not present used to be an excuse heaped on society by social workers.
But such was not the case recently in Atlanta as five well-to-do middle-class teenagers went on a robbing and intimidating rampage before being caught.
Former Marine Thomas Autry was working a new job after returning from a tour of duty from Iraq. As he walked home from work, he was confronted by the five bent on robbing him. This Memorial Day attack cost one teenager her life, while another was stabbed by the marine after he took the weapon from his predators.
The irony? Most of the defendants were from two family households where both parents had jobs.
Sgt. Mike Wilson, public information officer with the Savannah Police Department, provides some insights into what the department thinks is going on with the influx of teenage crime.
“We need to find out what most of these teenagers are pre-occupied with,” says Wilson. “We live in a culture where violence is glamorized. If kids are being entertained by things that represent acts of violence, then we need to figure out what is impacting their behavior.”
As great as the internet is, the use of it by adolescents has increased tremendously and the things ingested on some websites have created a subculture gone wild.
Rap artists, whom many teenagers idolize, often portray a life of riches, women and drugs. The central theme is, “You only live once, so go for the gusto now.”
The constant feeding of negative influences has created a boldness in youth, where fear takes a backseat to brazenness.
The more violent teenage criminals are also a main concern to Savannah Police officers, who according to Wilson encounter these individuals on a daily basis.
“We have got to identify and get those individuals off the street. I don’t know if longer jail terms for teenage criminals are the answer, because the longer they’re in jail, the more criminal activities they learn,” Wilson says.
“I can’t see warehousing them in an environment of seasoned criminals as being the answer.”
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Recent youth crime
• On Aug. 5 a 14-year-old girl stole a car at gunpoint from an 81-year-old man on New Mexico Street. The girl asked to use his telephone as he was entering his home. After being told she could not, the girl became more persistent. The third time he answered the door, the girl pulled a replica .45 caliber handgun and demanded the keys to the victim’s car. The victim complied and the girl drove off. Police saw the girl driving the car about an hour later. She sped off and eventually drove into a driveway and struck a garage pillar. She was arrested, became combative and had to be subdued with pepper spray.
• Also on Aug. 5, officers arrested a 15-year-old after he robbed a cabdriver at gunpoint and tried to outrun police. The robbery happened at the corner of Fahm and Zubley streets on Savannah’s westside around 1 a.m. Police found the suspect near the Greyhound Bus station on Oglethorpe Avenue. The boy fled from the officers, but was quickly apprehended.
• Two 14-year-olds were charged with burglary and obstruction by fleeing after burglarizing a West Savannah home on Krenson Street. The boys entered the house around 11:15 a.m. August 9. Two young girls were in the house when they heard glass shattering from a kitchen window. They immediately ran into the master bedroom of the house and locked themselves in. They placed a call to police by dialing 911 and within minutes officers were on the scene. With the aid of a K-9 unit the boys were arrested.
• In an unusual move, the teens accused of the June 2 robbery of the SunTrust Bank in the Kroger on Mall Boulevard are being charged as adults. Baheem Ramel Frazier, 13, of Savannah is charged with one count of armed robbery. His brother, Charles Ragland, 16 is charged with being a party to the crime of armed robbery.