The atmosphere inside Meeting Room One at City Hall on Wednesday evening quickly turned from calm to fiery as about a dozen New Haven residents — aldermen, community leaders and high school students — discussed how best to draw city youth to an upcoming Board of Aldermen hearing on a proposed citywide youth curfew.
With 20 minutes remaining, Ward 7 Alderwoman Bitsie Clark, chairwoman of the Youth Services Committee, asked a seemingly simple question of the three high school students in attendance: How can aldermen convince students to attend a Nov. 29 hearing on the curfew, a measure proposed after a recent string of fatal turf wars and altercations between youth and police?
But the debate that followed was anything but simple. By the end of the meeting, it was clear that two separate student hearings might be necessary, since Latinos and blacks would be unlikely to attend the same meeting due to racial tension. The students also insisted that aldermen visit their communities to get the word across, since there has been a disconnect between New Haven youth and community leaders that has hindered communication and fostered violence.
Moses Denzel Jean, a junior at Hillhouse High School, raised his hand first, addressing the merits of the curfew itself rather than how actually to bring students to the meeting.
“I’m going to blame [the need for a curfew] on the parents, because what are you doing that your child’s outside at eleven o’clock at night with his gun, and you’re not doing anything?” he said.
Jean said he was concerned that if a curfew is imposed, he could be mistaken for a troublemaker by police officers regardless of his intentions.
“Say I got beat up by a cop?” he said.
When Jean finished, Clark clarified that the question of whether or not to adopt the curfew would be discussed in the Committee of the Whole, which holds its first meeting to debate the curfew next Wednesday, and that discussion of its merits should be tabled until then. Yet the students in attendance clearly wanted to express the gap they said they feel between adult leaders in the community and their peers.
Ronald Higgins, a freshman at Hillhouse High School, said past attempts by community leaders to listen to young people have actually discouraged youth from participating, as when a police officer walked out on a panel of New Haven students who were explaining how they felt.
“That will build a wall against us,” he said. “You all are supposed to be setting for us an example, and you’re all going at it.”
Remidy Shareef, an adult who attended the meeting, said kids in New Haven rarely have a role model.
“They see more wrong than they see right,” he said. “How many times do we see righteous people standing up in unison to make a change? All they see is home boys with guns and what they see on the TV and radio.”
New Haven resident Che Dawson, who said she was “concerned” about the curfew issue, asked the youth if their friends would be more likely to come to the curfew hearing if adults explained its importance more clearly.
“What if somebody came to you and said, ‘Hey, if you don’t show up we’re going to make a decision for you?’” Dawson said. “If you really want to strike a chord with our youth, you have to go where they’re at.”
Late in the meeting, Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah attempted to communicate more directly with the students who, he said, may not always want to listen to their elders.
“We love you all, but we know that certain times in your life, you’re all not going to listen to us,” Shah said. “We want [a] person to talk to you and we want that person to help you all communicate. My question to you is, ‘Who is the best person to do that intervention?’ How we get you all to this meeting is very, very important.”
After the discussion, Ward 22 Alderman Rev. Drew King, who is co-chairing the Committee on the Whole, said the discussion was constructive, since tensions surfaced that demonstrated the problem facing city youth.
“It was very positive to the point where we know that one needs to reach our youth in a direct and positive way to meet their needs and encourage them,” King said.
And for Clark, who inadvertently sparked the debate, she said the discussion was one of the more enlightening experiences she has had as an alderwoman. She said she now realizes that there may need to be an additional meeting held at a second high school, as the original plan had called for.
“It was an enormously interesting and provocative discussion in which all of us learned a lot,” Clark said.