Many youths fearful in their city

Deaths weigh heavily in Dorchester

Email|Print| Text size + By Anna Badkhen
Globe Staff / November 7, 2007

Jatara Gray, a senior at Dorchester's Noonan Business Academy, recently rattled off a list of things she does when she is not in class. She watches MTV and "I Love New York" on cable. She listens to hip hop on her iPod. She is a cheerleader for her high school football team and works at a coffee shop in Cambridge.

Then, with the same nonchalance, Gray, 17, recited another list: of friends killed on the streets of Boston.

Eon Hoskins, 14, who went to middle school with Gray, was stabbed in June 2003 in Grove Hall. Dakeem Galloway, 14, was shot in Dorchester a year later. William Saladin, 20, was shot in the Franklin Hill housing development in September 2004, apparently caught in a crossfire between warring gangs. "He didn't duck close enough to the ground," Gray explained. Another friend - Charles Bunch Jr., 18 - was found in a Mattapan street with multiple gunshot wounds one night last month.

"So many people we knew are passing that we're not shocked," Gray said last week, sipping fruit punch at a sandwich shop near the school. "We're all used to it now."

Violent crime soared in neighborhoods like Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury in recent years. But lost amid the efforts to halt the killings and a flood of press coverage about dead victims is the impact the violence has had on those who survive. Last year, 42 percent of 900 Boston public high school students surveyed in a Harvard University study said they knew well or were related to someone who had been killed.

The Globe recently interviewed a group of students at Noonan, a high school of about 260 students in the Codman Square area of Dorchester. Just last week, the owner of a pizza parlor blocks from the school, a popular hangout for Noonan students, was fatally shot when he tried to stop a burglary.

The teenagers do not express the feeling of invincibility typical of other youths; they inhabit a universe where violence is random, sudden, and lethal, where no one can protect them, and no place is safe.

After school, when most adolescents play sports, study for college, or simply hang out, many Noonan students are preoccupied with thoughts of protecting themselves.

Gray dashes from school to catch a bus to the coffee shop in Cambridge where she works, never lingering in her neighborhood's violent streets.

Denise Mesidor, 18, peers around every street corner as she picks her way through Dorchester.

Jonathan Riley, 18, plans elaborate, circuitous routes to walk home from school.

Dyshawn Blount, 16, takes a city bus home, but he finds little rest in his own house on Blue Hill Avenue. He fights nightmares, which are all about getting shot.

"Around here, you can get shot no matter where you are, just because you are outside," Blount said. "You can be on your way to volunteer to help little kids, and you'll still get shot."

He said that several of his friends were shot and killed in 2004, and he described narrowly escaping a bullet the following year. He is not sure who was shooting at him or whether the assailant was targeting him specifically.

"Sometimes I wonder: Would today be my day to die?" said Taneya Jones, 14, whose cousin, Steven Odom, 13, was shot and killed in Dorchester last month.

There is little research examining the effect of violence on teenagers, but some specialists compare their psychological trauma to mental scars incurred in war zones. The sense of hopelessness, grief, fear, and loss associated with street violence may affect them more deeply than wartime violence affects children, said James Garbarino, a specialist on youth violence at Loyola University in Chicago.

"In traditional war zones, there is more coherence and more sense of purpose," he said.

The teenagers who navigate the streets of Boston say that violence here is unpredictable and omnipresent.

"There's no way to avoid violence, because you can only control what you do; you can't control what other people do," said Mesidor, who said several of her friends have been killed in street violence.

On a recent afternoon after class, Mesidor and a group of schoolmates met with a reporter next to a blackboard scribbled with algebra equations to talk about a subject that has become a frequent conversation topic for many Dorchester students.

"People get shot on the buses now, trains; it's ridiculous," Riley said.

"If I'm walking in the street, if somebody shoots me, what can I do?" said Carise Bernard, 18.

Jones started weeping. The conversation reminded her of Odom.

"I can't listen to him play the drums," she said. "I can't go to church with him."

Tears rolled down her cheeks. She did not wipe them. "There's just too many little kids dying for nothing."

Soul-searching conversations about religion, common for many adolescents, take on macabre tones.

"If God's with you, then why do people get shot every day?" said Riley, a soft-spoken senior. "Where's God at? What is he, resting?"

Some teenagers find solace at school, which, for many students, is the only place to escape the violent streets and safely discuss what happens outside. Riley, who said he is afraid to walk home from school, confides his fears to some teachers and counselors at Noonan. Riley lives in Four Corners in Dorchester where, he said, "they shoot every night, almost."

There have been no shootings at Noonan in recent years. But violence lingers just outside the school yard. At least eight shootings took place near the school in the last year, including the killing of the pizza shop owner last week.

Some students believe that no adult can protect them.

"My mother can tell me she loves me, but the only way she can protect me is to run out and take a bullet for me, and that won't do nobody no good," said Blount.

Blount said that he had gone to more than 20 funerals of homicide victims. Gray could not remember how many funerals she had attended. "Too many," she said with a shrug.

She added: "We have to grow up, and we have to start a future. And there's not going to be a lot of our generation if we are all going to be killed off."

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