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Rally ’Round the Kids

Grassroots efforts to protect the city’s youth feeling their way toward solutions

 

In March, three 13-year-olds were stabbed during one of a series of after-school fights, several blocks from Philip Livingston Magnet Academy. In the two months since, “school violence,” especially problems with gangs, bullying, and safe passage from school to home, has zoomed to the top of many city residents’ list of concerns. Most recently, last Friday’s horrific stabbing murder of an 8th-grade honor student who attended Hackett Middle School and had experienced bullying there has only added to the sense of urgency.

A number of community efforts have been launched to respond, with the people involved saying the responsibility should not lie only with the school district, especially outside of school hours.

On April 14, a group of parents, activists, and elected officials gathered outside of Livingston with boxes of doughnuts and other “after-school” snacks to show support for the students. Although some said the doughnuts amounted to nothing more than a publicity stunt, the group returned the next day without snacks, and kept going a couple days per week since to greet students and provide safe passage home from school for any who might want it.

On April 15, a dozen or so adults gathered on the corner of Livingston’s grounds. As students emerged, some of the adults stayed on the corner chatting with each other about the benefits of metal detectors, suspension policy, and other issues while calling out greetings to students, many of whom they knew, as they passed. Others moved down the street, standing alone and smiling at the students. Others headed out to provide a presence at known gathering spots like Livingston Avenue and Henry Johnson Boulevard.

“We’re not so naïve to think this one thing will be the solution to the problem,” said Barbara Smith, common council candidate for Ward 4 and one of the organizers. “It’s just one way to show there are adults who care. We just want the students to know that they’re not by themselves.”

The group plans to continue through the end of the school year, varying the days of the week so they are not predictable. “We have to come back; the kids are still here,” explained Marvin Hepburn, a city resident.

On April 22, two students from Harriet Gibbons, Albany’s alternative high school, held a speakout at the Boys and Girls Club on Delaware Avenue. They were tired of the media portraying all teens as violent and in gangs, they said, and wanted to show otherwise. Eight middle- and high-school students attended, and an equal or larger number of college, graduate and law students, all African-American.

The event turned into an intimate discussion between the older and younger students. The younger students spoke of the difficulty of walking away from someone who wanted to pick a fight for no reason, and the frequency with which they had to do that. They described how the usual in-school responses to an incident of violence—such as the principal coming over the PA system to admonish the student body—seemed to make things worse rather than better.

When one student suggested that some sort of mentoring program might help, the older students jumped on the idea, offering themselves as mentors then and there, available for trips, college coaching, or what have you. (“Ya’ll sound like you’ve got no lives!” protested one of the younger students, smiling.) The older students asked about the youngers’ dreams and plans (they wanted to be lawyers, doctors, teachers, and sign-language interpreters), and gave stories of the obstacles they had overcome. Before they left, the groups exchanged phone numbers and one-on-one conversations; in one a graduate student assured one of the high-school students that low SATs would not necessarily bar her from college.

At the end of the workday on May 12, the benches outside Albany Public Library’s main branch were abuzz. A couple dozen teens hung out, goofing off, grabbing snacks from a set of folding tables, and nervously watching the television cameras. They strutted their stuff, posing in bright red, blue and black shirts for pictures. The leaders of the Coalition for Change and Hope, which staged this event, said they started out outside because you can’t have a several-hour event around dinnertime with kids and not feed them, but food wasn’t allowed in the library.

The name of the event was key: “Listening to Youth.” The evening featured a few performances and then a discussion about gangs and school violence with the more than 50 teens in attendance. Taking notes was a “non-panel” (so-called because they were there to listen, not speak) made up of Muhammed Abdullah, a vice-principal of a Schenectady elementary school who coaches sports in Albany, First Ward Councilman Dominic Calsolero, parent Bernadette Ryan, District Attorney David Soares, Albany School Board member Taneka Frost, and Judge William Carter. At the end, panel members were supposed to briefly reflect back what they had heard and what they were going to do about it.

The discussion started slowly, with the two moderators from the Liberty Partnership Program frequently prodding speakers with follow-up questions about the pressures they feel and what had kept them out of trouble.

People join gangs for protection, to be like others, because their families are members, for fast money, and to find a sense of love and family when they don’t have enough at home, said various youths present, including two who said they had been gang members themselves and gotten out. Youth should be told that it doesn’t provide protection, it increases risk, they said. One girl answered the question “Why aren’t you in a gang” by saying that the group of kids she’d been friends with since elementary school “are my ‘gang.’ We’re just not violent.”

The suggestions they had for adults included more activities on weekends and during the summer, not just after school. They suggested free food and extra credit as incentives to draw teens into more programs, and suggested that teachers should actively steer kids toward programs that might help them develop a budding talent. (If they’re dropping a beat in the hall, maybe they’d be good as a percussionist in a band or in a poetry workshop, for example.)

Listening requires practice, however. Although they were clearly committed, all the adults on the panel except Carter and Soares strayed quickly into lecturing in their “brief” responses, and seemed to be addressing their comments more to the youth not present, giving very similar exhortations against violence and for schoolwork and active parenting that many of the teens present had been giving themselves.

Still, Quentin Piper, one of the students who opened the evening with a poem, said afterward that he felt the evening was a first step, not only because it gave him more ideas of the activities available after school, but because adults showed they were interested in what the students had to say. “I really liked that,” he said.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net


Like a True Nature’s Child

photo:Chris Shields

Engines chortled as motorcyclists converged on the State Capitol Monday (May 16) during a rally sponsored by American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, a motorcyclists’ rights group. The gathering was part of an effort to encourage progress on the various motorcycle-themed bills currently waiting in committee in the Legislature.

 

 



What a Week

Albany Politics 101

Local students acting as Common Council members for a day during Albany’s annual “Youth in Government” program last Monday (May 16) received a lesson in the reality of city governing these days, as their official counterparts spent much of the evening’s premeeting caucus bickering about the rules governing the event. After finally holding an emergency meeting to sort things out, the council proceeded with business as usual using Robert’s Rules of Order, with the temporary lawmakers speaking for the representatives they were shadowing on the evening’s agenda items.

Fourth and Goal for $300 Million

After initially disregarding massive opposition from both the public and state and local lawmakers, Gov. George E. Pataki postponed a critical vote on approval of $300 million in taxpayer-funded state backing for a new stadium for the New York Jets on Manhattan’s West Side. Pataki made the decision Tuesday (May 17), just a day after saying that the various lawsuits pending against the stadium plans were inconsequential and that he had “no intention, at this point, of taking it off the agenda.” Meanwhile, workers’ unions rallied at the state Capitol on Tuesday afternoon, calling for the stadium project—and the jobs it will bring with it—to be approved.

Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em

Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) have introduced the federal Truth in Broadcasting Act to try to ensure that video or audio segments produced by the government aren’t mistaken for “real” news segments. In arguing against the bill, which would require verbal warnings for the “fake” audio segments and the phrase “Produced by the U.S. Government” to be displayed throughout promotional video segments, PR industry representatives expressed concern about extending the “long arm of the government,” mirroring many of the arguments voiced by the tobacco industry when Congress initially proposed putting warnings on cigarette packages. A February 2005 ruling by the Government Accountability Office declared that the recent spate of government-produced segments were “covert propaganda” if their source was not apparent to viewers. Covert propaganda could also be considered a long arm of government, no?



Do We Have to Say It Again?

Battle over a North Country factory calls into question the public’s role in the state permitting process

‘What it has taken is an immense amount of fortitude and conviction,” said John E. Godfrey, president of Chatham Forest Products, in a March 2005 interview with North Country Public Radio.

Godfrey was responding to the announcement that Vancouver-based company Ainsworth Lumber was planning to purchase CFP’s rights to construct a chipboard factory in the northern New York town of Lisbon. For Godfrey, obtaining the rights to build such a factory has been a six-year, back-and-forth battle with local residents and environmental groups—an expensive battle that, according to reports, he has been happy to make an exit from.

Yet, opponents of the mill claim that they’re the ones exhibiting “fortitude and conviction.” Citing the county’s already above-state-average rate of cancer (an effect of already present industrial facilities, many claim), the mill’s opponents have filed numerous lawsuits—and appeals of judgments on those lawsuits—against CFP, its president and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which has repeatedly given its approval to the project.

“We’ve discovered in going through this long process,” said Donald Hassig, the director of Cancer Action NY and one of several plaintiffs in lawsuits against CFP, “that there’s no justice in any of the permitting process.”

And while DEC, the state Attorney General’s office and CFP all have argued that state and federal policies were adhered to properly, questions remain about the permitting process and the public’s ability to have a say in it.

In 1999, CFP became one of the first companies to take advantage of Gov. George E. Pataki’s Build Now-NY program, designed to make the state more attractive to new industries by streamlining the permit process. The CFP mill, which would also receive tax breaks and other incentives through the state’s Empire Zones program, was slated to produce oriented strand board, a building material often used as an alternative to plywood. Creating the board involves bonding layers of shaved wood—including tree species that are otherwise unfit as building materials—using powerful adhesives and volatile chemicals such as formaldehyde.

Though the new mill was expected to create more than 100 new jobs in the region, local residents and environmental groups balked at the arrival of the facility and its potential pollutant emissions, pointing to the region’s already high rate of cancer incidence. Department of Health statistics indicate that 607 of every 100,000 male residents and 484 of every 100,000 female residents were diagnosed with some form of cancer between 1998 and 2002—well over the state average. Residents contend that prevailing wind patterns continually place the county and its neighbors downwind of industrial facilities located in New York, the surrounding states and Canada. The type of emissions created during OSB processing weren’t likely to improve the environment, reasoned critics.

Despite these protestations (which mill opponents submitted to the DEC during the preliminary permitting process), CFP’s initial permit was granted—without a public hearing. This decision, say mill opponents, provided the initial spark igniting six years of legal firefights.

In deciding to forego the public hearing, DEC officials claimed that no “substantive and significant issues” were raised by the public, and cited NYSDEC regulations that required more than “mere expressions of general opposition to a project.”

In the six years (and numerous state and federal lawsuits) following that decision, the agency’s definition of “substantive and significant” has frequently come under fire by mill opponents. While the first permit eventually was revoked due to disagreements between the state and CFP over how—and how much of—the mill’s emissions were to be regulated, a subsequent permit was quickly submitted and approved (also without a public hearing). Since then, various lawsuits charging that CFP had misrepresented its production levels, that the company’s application was a sham and that the intended methods for regulating emissions are woefully inadequate, have all served to delay the facility’s initial plan for a 2001 opening.

“Permit holders should not be forced to defend, over and over, the same completely baseless claims,” reasoned Godfrey in an affidavit to the NYS Supreme Court.

Whether opponents’ claims were truly “baseless,” however, remains the subject of passionate disagreement.

While the mill would have the capability of operating as a “major source” of air pollution according to 1990’s federal Clean Air Act, the act grants individual state agencies much of the power in permitting facilities. This division of power, along with some ambiguous wording in state and federal policy, has caused many critics to argue that the permitting process relies on arbitrary interpretation of policy—often favoring new industry over environmental quality.

Despite CFP’s potential for emitting “major source” pollution, the company was granted a “synthetic minor permit” by the NYSDEC—to the continued dismay of mill opponents. While this type of permit acknowledges the facility’s high-emission potential, it allows the company to bypass the strict “major source” regulations simply by volunteering to keep its emissions (and, as a result, production) under the major-source level.

But critics contend that the DEC’s system for making sure facilities abide by these standards isn’t enough to protect the region. According to current DEC policy, synthetic minor permits require little more than a spot-check at five-year intervals. Plaintiffs in the various lawsuits filed against CFP argue that continuous monitoring of emissions is the only way to make sure a facility with such high production capability is actually adhering to agreements not to make as much as their plant is capable of making.

While Hassig and other opponents of the mill say that they’ll continue to fight against development of such a facility, the announcement by Ainsworth Lumber may signal industry perception that mill opponents’ legal resources are dwindling.

But some opponents at least aren’t planning to give up. “We have these unacceptable levels of disease because we weren’t cautious enough to avoid the exposures that are now occurring. That doesn’t have to continue to be the case,” said Hassig, who’s currently awaiting judgment on his organization’s third lawsuit against CFP. “The most important part of this is the role of the public in review.”

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


Don’t Whine to Me About Gas Prices

photo:John Whipple

The 2005 National Tour de Sol, the 17th annual sustainable energy and transportation festival and competition, rolled in to Saratoga Springs this weekend, and then came down to Albany’s Empire State Plaza on Monday (May 16). In the competition, Brian Hardegen’s modified Honda Insight (the Insight is the most efficient of the commercially available hybrid cars) broke the 100 mpg barrier. Biodiesel, electric, and solar cars (and motorcycles) also were represented.

 

 

 

 


Loose Ends

Rather than spending yet another year duking it out over party lines, state lawmakers charged with improving New York’s voting system [“Mired in the Machines,” Newsfront, March 17] decided last week to punt on one of the most controversial aspects of federal voting-reform regulations. The HAVA conference committee shifted responsibility for the type of voting machines used throughout the state to individual counties instead of approving a single, statewide style of machine. Voters’ rights groups criticized the decision, as it could result in each county using different machines, verification methods and recount systems—mirroring the environment in Florida during the 2000 election. . . . In a much-anticipated event for local cinephiles [“The Return of the Film,” Newsfront, March 31], Madison Theater owner Joseph Tesiero initially had planned to reopen the Albany theater’s doors this week for a midnight premiere of Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith. However, a last-minute problem with the landmark venue’s plumbing forced Tesiero to push back the grand reopening. . . . The local, politically connected contender for the Park South urban renewal project [“What Would You Do?” Newsfront, May 27, 2004], BBL Development Group, withdrew from consideration after the Common Council voted to recommend that the Albany Local Development Corporation choose Boston-based Winn Development, which has no history of using eminent domain, instead. . . . They may not have much of a chance, but two bills introduced by Assemblyman Daniel L. Hooker (R-Saugerties)—to require the teaching of “intelligent design” [“Survival of the Fittest Beliefs,” April 7] in public schools and to allow the posting of the Ten Commandments on government property—have reminded some that New York’s barrier between church and state is under attack as well. . . . In Tuesday’s nonbinding referendum on charter-school funding [“Old School vs. New School,” Newsfront, Dec. 16, 2004], Albany city voters disapproved of diverting public school funds to charters by a ratio of 4.5 to 1. They approved the budget by a ratio of only 1.2 to 1. The Albany library budget also passed, by only 107 votes. Turnout was approximately 5,800.



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