Lack of Hope: Trenton teens discuss life in the city, researchers share ideas to change the culture

Cops guard the scene of Trenton’s first homicide of 2018.

Cops guard the scene of Trenton’s first homicide of 2018.

Imagine you’re a quiet five-year-old boy who just moved to the capital city from another state and the first time you go out to play in the park, grown men tell a group of kids to jump you.

Now imagine physical abuse at the hands of strangers continued for the next 12 years as you progressed through school.

After more than a decade of being jumped and beaten by peers, what would you do?

“I carry a pocket knife and my sister carries mace,” a teenage high school student told The Trentonian during a conversation about life in the capital city. “If you’re nice and quiet, you become a target. You can do nothing wrong and you’ll be a target just because people are hating on you. During middle school they used to jump me a lot, so there was no point in going outside because I never knew who was watching me. If you’re not acting like a wannabe gangsta, the kids who do are going to get you.”

That scenario could happen in any urban city in the United States. But unfortunately, this is reality in Trenton — an 8-square-mile capital city positioned between two major metropolitan areas (Philadelphia and New York), where life can be so hard that a goal of simply moving an hour and a half away can seem like an unachievable dream to a young person.

Over the past year, this newspaper spoke with high school students educated in the Trenton Public Schools (TPS) district. The interviews took place in the presence of an adult and the teens were granted anonymity to speak freely and honestly. Each interview started with vague questions, such as “What is it like to live in Trenton?” While some students also spoke about nice and community-oriented neighbors, each of the conversations began with a discussion about violence.

“It’s worse for boys,” a teenager said, adding that altercations between females mostly revolve around intimacy with a boy. “But boys fight a lot for no reason, especially if they’re not from the same neighborhoods. A lot of people don’t go to football games at Trenton High School’s main campus because if you’re not from Wilbur (where the school is located), the Section will beat you up.”

It’s no secret that Trenton is rife with street crews that often battle each other for turf. Oftentimes, turf wars revolve around drug dealing, but officials say kids also fight for the right to simply hang out in specific neighborhoods.

Law enforcement officials say turf wars are hardly ever about where someone resides, but rather revolve around the location a group decides to establish as territory. A kid who lives in West Trenton could hang out with a group in East Trenton and find himself in altercations with other residents from his neighborhood. Teens interviewed for this report say social media exacerbates most arguments, often leading to violence in the streets.

“A lot of times, beef starts as a matter of disrespect,” former police director Ernest Parrey Jr. said in a previously unpublished interview. “Personal disputes often escalate. At first they’re throwing insults, and the next thing you know they’re throwing bullets.”

Up through last week when this newspaper interviewed current law enforcement leaders, cops had apprehended 426 juveniles in 2018 for alleged offenses ranging from aggravated assault to truancy or curfew violation. Officials say a “very small percentage” of them were charged with serious crimes, and that most were released back to a parent or guardian.

However, the fear of a child being struck by a bullet in Trenton is real. Last year, 11 juveniles were victims of gunfire, including 17-year-old Tashaughn Robinson who was fatally gunned down on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in June.

That number is lower than the 24 kids shot in the capital city in 2017, when cops in Trenton arrested 36 juveniles for gun offenses. Moreover, an Associated Press and USA Today investigation published in 2017 ranked Trenton among the top 10 cities with the highest rates of teen shootings.

Last year, at least 118 people were injured by gunfire in Trenton during 74 separate shooting incidents. Those numbers are down compared to 2017, when 163 people were shot during 131 separate incidents and cops seized 209 guns off city streets.

As of last week, the number of firearms seized off Trenton streets in 2018 was on pace to increase approximately 18 percent, though officials were not immediately able to provide exact numbers.

“We have to give credit for those gun seizures to the special operations units and patrol,” acting police director Lt. Chris Doyle said.

Officials attribute the reduction in shootings to “intelligence-based policing” and collaborations with outside departments, as was the case when various federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies spent two-years investigating a violent heroin-dealing crew that resulted in 27 people being charged with conspiracy drug offenses in October.

However, history shows the capital city’s crime statistics fluctuate each year, improving at times; yet, at other times, embarrassing the city on a national level, as was the case in 2013, the deadliest year in Trenton’s modern history.

But one thing has been constant over the past 18 years: Trenton’s murder rate has remained above 15 per 100,000 residents — higher than several large U.S. cities — regardless of the efforts by law enforcement.

“There’s too many juveniles involved in carrying firearms,” former director Parrey said. “Some of these kids carry guns because they are afraid and don’t want to become a victim. But for other kids, guns are a status symbol. This is more than a police department’s problem. I know a lot of folks get upset when I say this, but the community must be involved in the solution. There’s a parental piece that needs to be addressed. We can’t expect the police department to handle it all.”

Lack of Hope

A common theme expressed by city teens revolved around a (perceived or real) lack of options to occupy time and remain out of trouble. Many students have accepted the sight of “grown men hanging out by store corners” as normal life in Trenton.

“It’s like nobody has anything to do but gangbang,” a teen said.

Many of the teens this newspaper interviewed have family members with criminal records, so they try to stay on top of their school studies to avoid becoming another “Trenton statistic.”

“Nobody believes that people from Trenton can make it out or be something,” one student said. “I don’t want people to look at me a certain way because I live in Trenton.”

Census data shows that roughly 25 percent (or 21,241 residents) of Trenton’s population is under the age of 18, making the number of kids stopped by police last year a mere fraction of the juvenile population.

But the few “bad apples” permeate the fabric of this 84,000-strong community and sometimes destroys lives in the process.

“The school smells like weed,” a highschooler said. “They smoke in the hallways and stairwells almost everyday.”

While some students said school guards “try to stop bad behavior” and convince kids to stay out of trouble, others described guards as “too young,” with “not enough care” for what happens.

“This guy told the security guards what was going to happen to him, but they didn’t care enough to do anything about it, so he got jumped,” a teen said. “They don’t take their job seriously.”

And as for teachers: “I feel like it depends on whether they know the student wants to change,” a teen said.

Students said some teachers will remain persistent in trying to convince a kid to stay out of trouble. But if they realize their advice is not improving behaviors, “they just give up.”

“I think that’s why a lot of people say teachers don’t care either,” a student said.

When asked to estimate the percentage who don’t seem to care about the students in their school, the majority of the teens said approximately 70-75 percent of teachers seem like they don’t want to be there.

One teen suggested the teachers have cause for not caring: “They have to teach in Trenton and dealing with kids’ attitudes is just overwhelming for them after a little while. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.”

Teens estimated 60-70 percentage of students seem to not take school seriously. One teen described negativity as their greatest challenge living in the capital city.

“Negativity seems to be everywhere in Trenton; you can’t run from it,” she said.

With a toxic environment as described by teens interviewed for this report, it’s no wonder that the TPS district high school graduation rate for the class of 2017 was only 70 percent, according to state department of education data. That low figure is due in large part to Daylight/Twilight’s graduation rate of 34 percent. Both Trenton Central High School campuses graduated more than 80 percent of its 2017 class.

The statewide graduation rate in 2017 was 90.5 percent. The graduation rates both statewide and in TPS have gradually increased over recent years.

Dr. Fred McDowell, superintendent of TPS, said the district has “worked to develop a Continuous Improvement Guide to ensure that Trenton schools are highly-reliable and on a path to achieve our shared vision that all students graduate with a vision for their future, are motivated to learn continually, and are prepared to succeed in their choice of college or career.”

When asked what the district is doing to improve the level of respect between students and teachers, McDowell replied:

“School leaders have expressed the desire to seek innovative ways to increase positive school culture. The district will be exploring options and seeking to make intentional investments in the area for the 2019-2020 school year.”

Changing the Culture

Dr. Robert Barr and Dr. Emily Gibson, authors of Building a Culture of Hope: Enriching Schools With Optimism and Opportunity, believe they have found the innovative key to improving the culture in Trenton schools.

Their award-winning research shows that children living in poverty need more than just academics to succeed.

“This is a condition that’s associated with poverty. And the first thing you have to do when the kid walks in the [school] door is address their feelings of helplessness,” Dr. Barr said.

Government census data estimates that 27.3 percent of Trenton residents survive below poverty level. That number increases among women who raise children without a father in the household.

Dr. Barr has not studied Trenton schools, but his experience studying high-performing schools in high-poverty areas throughout the U.S. shows that the key to changing the culture requires involvement from the community as a whole.

“From the time they get on a school bus in the morning or walk in the front door, they are showered with optimism,” Barr said, adding that school safety, self-confidence and a sense of belonging are encouraged with every encounter between staff and students in some of the high-poverty locations he’s studied. “Then, they help them find purpose in their schoolwork and purpose in their lives.”

Barr said that optimism and self-confidence will be key in the coming decades as the American workforce continues to redefine itself, with less full-time jobs at corporations.

“The pathway to a better life must go through schools because all of the jobs out there that you can build a life on demand education,” Barr said. “Unemployment is down right now, but we can’t find people to fill the jobs that are available because they demand very specific high-tech training.”

Census data estimates that only 8 percent of Trenton residents aged 25 or older have obtained a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

“Our conclusion is this: if you drop out of school today in the United States, you’re going to live your life underemployed, unemployed and unemployable,” Dr. Barr said. “You’re going to live and die in the richest nation on Earth and you’re never gonna be able to find a job to build a life on.”

Dr. Barr and Dr. Gibson are currently working on a book that highlights a developing response by schools that are reaching out to address problems within the community by identifying the needs of the family and then identifying the government agencies and organizations to provide assistance.

“Schools are becoming the first responders to poverty,” Barr said. “These outreach efforts started to help more kids get to school because of such catastrophic absentee rates. If kids are afraid to go to school, or can’t get to school, they cannot learn.”

Light in the Tunnel

If there’s an upside to these life-sobering experiences, it’s this: the teens interviewed by this newspaper are patently aware of their personal responsibility for success. Some students described actions they took to “purposely separate” from negative influences in school.

“I think one of the biggest challenges is that some people don’t want better for themselves,” a student said. “They seem to settle for being like people around them.”

Some teens spoke of chess clubs, culinary clubs, cosmetology clubs and volunteer activities that help keep them on a grounded path toward personal success. Others mentioned sports, music and the Trenton PEERS education and support group at Millhill Center as motivators to remain on a crimeless path.

“I’m most worried about being seen as something less than I am,” a teen said. “Even though Trenton looks bad, there are good people here who deserve a chance.”

Police investigate Trenton's final murder of 2018, which left a woman dead in November. (Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman - Trentonian)

Police investigate Trenton’s final murder of 2018, which left a woman dead in November. (Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman - Trentonian)

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