Focus on the at-risk – Opinion/editorial –
November 14, 2008 at 10:30 PM EST

It would be a shame if the useful and groundbreaking elements in a massive new report on youth violence commissioned by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty were dismissed too quickly because that report bears an unfortunate tinge of political correctness.

What is useful is the call for a vast effort to identify the most at-risk neighbourhoods of 400 to 700 people across Canada’s biggest province and build up a wide range of supports (social, academic, psychological, job-related and recreational) for the young people in those neighbourhoods, in part by turning the schools over to community programs, once class lets out in the afternoon. Modelled on a program in Britain, and an extension of a more limited program in Toronto, such an effort would be far from a panacea for angry, alienated teenagers. But it is concrete, it need not drain the treasury, and it may reach some young people who are open, for better or worse, to external influence. Also useful in the nearly 2,000-page report and literature review by Roy McMurtry, a former Ontario chief justice, and Alvin Curling, a former cabinet minister, is the insistence on making mental-health services truly universal for children and youth.

Less useful is the focus on institutional racism, and the prescriptions that range from predictable to far-fetched. The far-fetched: Police officers should be “‘assessed for competence’ in matters of race.” What on Earth does that mean? Put on the rack until they mouth the proper platitudes? Another is that school boards should put their black (sorry, “racialized”) teachers and administrators in the schools with black (oops) populations. There is something incredibly condescending about that, from the standpoint of the teachers whose aspirations are no doubt as varied as those of their non-black counterparts, and of the students, who would surely benefit from good teachers of all hues. A far better idea, proposed by the Brookings Institution in the United States, is to give bonuses to encourage the best teachers to teach in the most at-risk schools.

In the first two months of the school year in Toronto, there have already been a stabbing and a shooting on school property; there was another one at summer school in July, and a fatal shooting in May that prompted this report. The authors are right to be concerned that, even though crime statistics are stable, public spaces are increasingly being ceded to violence, and there are major “concentrations of disadvantage” that nurture anger in young people. And too many black youth are being raised in just those conditions.

A segment of those youth see society as the enemy. Reaching the most disadvantaged young people early is therefore crucial.

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