Annoying Noises Are Just That, But Not the Answer to Urban Youth Issues

Sep 09, 2010

By Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt

For the last week or so, we've heard reports about a device to repel teenagers that businesses recently installed near the Gallery Place-Chinatown subway station in downtown Washington D.C.  The device, called The Mosquito, emits a high-frequency sound that typically only young people under age 25 can hear.

Business owners in the neighborhood put in this gadget shortly after a 70-person brawl ensued in the area's subway station during early August. The owners complain that rowdy and violent teenagers detract from their businesses. During the evenings and weekends, youth from some of the city's less desirable areas head to the neighborhood to go bowling, to the movies or just hang out. The overwhelming majority of them are good kids, but business owners are content to violate the rights of all youth in their misguided effort to keep an "unfavorable" set of youth away from the area.

The problem of teen loitering is not new, nor is it unique to Washington, D.C.  However, residents and business owners in trendy, upscale urban neighborhoods like Gallery Place-Chinatown believe that they stand to lose a lot - revenue, reputation, and respect - if the issue of teen loitering is not handled. Likewise, residents in blighted neighborhoods are troubled by the large numbers of youth who congregate on street corners at all times of day or night.

It is extremely troubling, however, that anyone would decide that the appropriate short-term response to the issue of teen loitering or violence is a repellent device akin to those used to ward off household pests. The use of The Mosquito on young people is a violation of their basic human rights and dignity.

The larger issue at play is that young people in urban communities have few options for positive engagement and entertainment. Youth need safe environments in which to socialize and thrive. Youth development theory has long said that young people need opportunities like civic engagement, formal recreational activities, cultural events, career development and work experience to occupy their time and help them to become well-rounded individuals. In a CNN article on The Mosquito, Judith Sandlow, director of the Children's Law Center said: "This isn't the best solution. We need to have better programs for youth, we need to engage them in activities."

Business owners and residents in Washington, DC are right to be concerned about the massive brawl that occurred in the subway station. Violence is an issue that we must address. But installing a high-frequency device in the neighborhood to scatter the teens is not the answer. Moving youth to another block or another neighborhood won't address the larger, entrenched problems of poverty and lack of opportunity for youth.

The nation and its communities must collectively take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that we have not done right by these young people. We have failed to provide the level of programming and services necessary to ensure that all youth have access to opportunities to be productive and successful.  The federal investment in these neighborhoods is insufficient and many communities lack a coordinated strategy for delivery of services to these youth.

As the federal government and Congress consider initiatives such as Promise Neighborhoods, new legislation such as the Youth PROMISE Act, and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Workforce Investment Act, it would be helpful to remember that the goal should never be to repel our youth, but rather to pull them in and help them to be successful.

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