The Kids Aren't All Right
Juvenile violence is increasing. It's not because parents have suddenly become worse. It's because the condition of poverty in Atlanta is deteriorating.
There’s no shortage of horrifying video of violence in Atlanta these days. This one is relatively tame. But it’s part of a trend, and something to discuss. A couple of kids snatched a rental scooter from a couple on the Beltline, then one of their phones. When bystanders began to object and film them, one of the kids pulled a gun.
Atlanta’s violence problem right now has multiple drivers. At the top end, we have organized gangs waging war in the street. That violence is targeted and concentrated within the narrow fraternity of the drill. But juvenile violence also broadly appears to be spiking.
It’s more than the high-profile incidents we see on the news, like a shooting at the Atlanta fairgrounds last month which killed 16-year-old Joshua Adetunji and wounded two others, or the Waffle House shootout at Centennial Olympic Park two days ago, where five kids got shot.
Fulton County’s juvenile court has had more cases come before its bench over the last month than in any month since the pandemic started, said Brett Pinion, deputy district attorney for juvenile court. Many of those cases are linked to street gangs which have been recruiting kids heavily during the pandemic, he said.
Thus we see the cri-de-coeur from the Atlanta Police Department this morning, in a lengthy Facebook post calling on the public to take action where it cannot. The department’s post asks why people aren’t demanding an end to juvenile violence with the same vitriol and passion that they display in cases of police misconduct.
“What we know for sure is, the moment an officer responds to one of these incidents and the outcome is deemed unfavorable, from a public perspective, the media, a large segment of the community, and every member of that suspect’s family will saturate the airwaves with their take on it, and how it could have been avoided. The family will show an outpouring of love for the suspect, there will be heavy criticism of the police, and a demand for justice for misunderstood “Johnny”. Our question is, where are they now? Where were they this weekend?”
The answer, broadly, is that the public does not have legal and moral responsibility for the conduct of private citizens, but it does have responsibility for the police officers we pay to respond to misconduct. We didn’t put a gun in “Johnny’s” hand. We did put one in a police officer’s hand. Every taxpayer has moral responsibility for every bullet fired from a police officer’s gun. Our response to police misconduct must be different.
The department’s message is meant to manage expectations, I think. Bad things are coming, and people are going to be howling. They want to get in front of it, and I don’t fault them for that.
I’m not interested in some extended political critique of the police department’s grievances because the larger issue is more important: we are staring at an incoming tsunami of juvenile violence, and we need to worry less about who to blame and more about what caused it and we’re going to do about it.
It’s not like people didn’t see this coming. Jason Esteves, chairman of the APS board (and now a candidate for the State Senate) and I discussed youth violence and schools at length last year. The pandemic traumatized young people. The results were predictable.
Esteves, in June 2021:
“It's going to be interesting, because that G-word is being used a lot. But what's going to happen when these kids come back, about 60% of our kids have not been in a school building since March of 2020. And they're going to be coming back for the first time in August. And some of these kids who were not affiliated with any organized group are now affiliated with that group. And they're going to be coming to school and interacting with kids who may be affiliated with other groups, right, other gangs. And what I said before was pre pandemic: there wasn't a significant amount, or concern around gang violence. We have a great safety and security team that that really works with our students on that. And they also work with APD.
“But what's going to happen afterwards? After the pandemic, where these kids are coming back, they had over a year of unstructured time to get themselves affiliated with folks who they would normally not be in the same room with.”
The school system has increasingly committed to avoiding a school-to-prison pipeline approach to student misconduct, and — before the pandemic — had seen broad reductions in violence at school. Atlanta’s schools doubled their psychologists and school counselors in anticipation of managing expected behavior problems.
Apparently they’ve got those problems, in technicolor.
At the start of the pandemic, referrals to the Department of Family and Children’s Services fell off a cliff, because teachers couldn’t see their students. Now that students have been back in class, Fulton County is setting all-time records for reports of child abuse, even as DFCS strains to manage its regular load.
It’s easy enough to say that distance learning doesn’t work for every kid. But for some kids in poverty, distance learning outside of the schoolhouse amounted to more than a year of unsupervised time on the street. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s gang wars began to escalate during the pandemic, tied to a music scene being driven by the ethos of drill music — get money by whatever means are available, and shoot anyone in the way.
The poorest and most dysfunctional apartment complexes in Atlanta became gang recruiting grounds for unsupervised 14-year-olds during the pandemic. Those 14-year-olds are returning to classrooms now as members of 4 Pockets Full or Play For Keeps or the Henxhmen or 5L or other street gangs, with guns stolen from cars and neighborhood rivalries more relevant than their schoolwork.
Layer the housing crisis on top of this problem. Rents have jumped $300 a month since I interviewed Esteves a year ago. But a Black person with a criminal record is still functionally unemployable, even in this job market. A poor family facing eviction in south Atlanta is effectively facing homelessness. Is it any wonder then that some parents might not inquire deeply into the conduct of a kid who could be pulling in extra money running drugs for a street gang?
This is more than an Atlanta school problem. Juvenile violence has been breaking out across the metro area and, really, everywhere.
But what should we do about it?
The first thing, I think, is to understand that this isn’t a momentary problem. We’re in the early stages of a juvenile crime crisis that will ripple like a wave across Atlanta and America as these kids age into adulthood. We will be digging out of this for years.
We can — and should — demand that parents take responsibility for their children. But that’s not a solution to a problem; it’s just affixing blame while we still have the problem. Rich parents and poor parents are just as likely to be bad parents. But rich parents can buy their way out of problems that poor parents cannot. Some number of parents are always going to be incapable of managing their children. The question is what we should do to keep these parents’ problem from becoming our problem.
We should acknowledge the powerful allure to a kid from Cleveland Avenue of the gun, the music video and the stack of bands, when compared to the alternatives. We need to present better practical alternatives to people at the margins.
The mechanisms we use to empower and support parents are broken. DFCS is effectively useless today: it can’t handle the current caseload of serious abuse and neglect, never mind matters of relatively mundane delinquency.
We’re going to have to do some hard things. DFCS needs the equivalent of the Marshall Plan to prepare for what’s on the way. That’s going to be a political challenge. We also need a major movement to increase the number of foster parents in Georgia, along with more financial and social support for those foster parents. That’s more than a political challenge. It is a moral challenge.