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Violence pervades life of city teens, study finds

Many said kin were victims

Nearly 90 percent of Boston public high school students questioned in 2004 said they had witnessed acts of violence, and nearly a third said they had a family member killed in a shooting, stabbing, or beating, according to a survey commissioned by the City of Boston.

Taken long before the recent increase in homicides in the city, the survey found that many students said they had access to weapons. Half the boys reported that getting a gun would be ''very or fairly easy" and a quarter of the students reported having seen someone shot in the past year.

The survey was completed in August but not made public by the city until Friday. Councilor at Large Maura Hennigan, who opposed Mayor Thomas M. Menino in the last election, criticized the mayor for not making the report public during the campaign. The mayor said yesterday that he didn't know why the report was not released sooner.

''I have no idea," said Menino. ''I never saw it. There was no sense of urgency."

The results, he said, were ''shocking when [they were] presented to us. It amazes me how many have witnessed violence, how many know someone with a gun. It's a real concern of mine and anyone in a position of responsibility. We grapple with this issue every day."

Menino said he will appoint a youth adviser to address the crisis facing teenagers in the city. ''We're going to revamp our services to young people," he said. ''We need one person who will be my policy person on youth to look at all these issues. But it goes beyond programs. It goes to families. It goes to responsibility."

There have been 74 homicides in the city this year. At least half of the victims have been 25 or younger.

The study was conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health based on questionnaires returned by more than 1,000 high school students and is available on the city's website at

Roughly 18,500 students were in grades 9-12 in Boston schools when the survey was given.

The results paint a picture of a city teen population threatened by pervasive violence but still hopeful about the future. Sixty-one percent said they felt optimistic ''a lot, most, or all of the time."

The finding that nearly 90 percent had witnessed an act of violence is in stark contrast to a similar survey taken in 2001, which found that 62 percent had witnessed violence in the previous year. Among the findings of the survey:

87 percent saw someone shot, threatened, chased, attacked, hit, slapped, punched, kicked, or beaten up at least once in the past year

44 percent said they were victims of violence themselves at least once in the past year

46 percent of the black students said a family member had died in a homicide

52 percent said gangs at school are ''somewhat or very dangerous"; 70 percent said gangs in the neighborhood are ''somewhat or very dangerous."

Students from 17 public and charter schools were asked to complete the survey. The largest number of respondents came from Dorchester and Roxbury. Menino said the survey results may have been skewed because West Roxbury, Chinatown, and Charlestown were underrepresented. Those neighborhoods generally have lower violent crime rates than Dorchester and Roxbury.

The survey found that students felt violence was everywhere. About half the students reported witnessing violence in school, in their neighborhood, on the MBTA, on their way to school, and on their own street. Nearly 20 percent said they saw violence at home.

Even so, the students said they don't feel unsafe -- more than half (54 percent) said they felt safe in most places. They felt the most threatened on public transportation. Forty-one percent said they felt unsafe on the MBTA.

Dozens of other questions were designed to give city officials a close-up look at students' interests and habits outside of school.

Though 95 percent of the students said they plan to continue their education after high school, 43 percent said they spend an hour or more a day on homework.

Nearly three quarters said they were ''truant" -- that is, absent from school without being sick -- at least once in the previous four months. Forty-one percent said they were truant one to three days in the four-month period

Half reported watching three or more hours of TV a night, and 42 percent said they spent three or more hours a day on the Internet or playing computer games. Nearly three-quarters said they had Internet access, and 57 percent said they have their own cellphones.

Larry Mayes, chief of Human Services for the city, said the survey confirmed suspicions that teenagers are intimidated ''around the issue of guns. The mayor has gone around and asked young people 'Do you know anyone with a gun?' and all the kids had their hands raised."

He said city officials will begin to work on a new survey starting next month. ''We want to really understand the social, cultural issues facing young people today," Mayes said.

The Rev. Eugene Rivers said officials should not need a survey to tell them what many people already know. ''This is stuff that people have been experiencing for a while," he said. ''This has been growing for a while but was right beneath the radar screen of our leadership. The culture of violence has largely been contained to the underclass, but that cancer is now spreading."

Hennigan, who made the city's rising homicide rate a cornerstone of her mayoral campaign, said Menino should have made the survey results public months ago. ''It's very clear violence is at an epidemic level," she said. ''People in poor communities and communities of color are the ones most impacted, and they have a right to know these statistics. They deserve accountability from city government and a commitment to come up with solutions.

''It's such a disservice to everybody when the city waits until a week of the year when people are celebrating and sharing time with their families. They have hidden the report for months and months instead of admitting they have a problem and putting together an action plan to do something about it," she said.

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