Sunday, March 30, 2003

Protecting the innocent


Many of our kids live in war zone, too

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Joe Wilmers held off lecturing the seven students who'd come to school an hour late.

They had just given the Washington Park Elementary School social worker an excuse matching the day's headlines: A shootout outside the kids' apartment building the night before, March 20, left two men dead and one injured.

It was probably revenge, police said, for a nearby shooting that left a man critical the previous day.

At any rate, the yellow police tape temporarily kept the students away from their apartment building. Their families sent them elsewhere overnight. They couldn't get on-time transportation to school the next day.

Homicides 19 and 20 on the 11th week of 2003. Four shootings in three weeks. Any way you count them, they affected Washington Park students. Wilmers says it's "fairly typical of this year, last year and the year before."

People wonder what the war in Iraq is doing to American children who see it each day on TV, hear about it in school, perhaps have a friend or relative in the military.

In Over-the-Rhine, school counselors say they're coping with the effects of a different war, closer to home.

Donna Mire, a social worker at Rothenberg Preparatory School in Over-the-Rhine, usually drives three girls to their Vine Street apartment after school. The girls - in second, third and fourth grades - usually argue about the best approach, Mire says. Is it safe today to be dropped off in front, where bullets sometimes fly, or to drive around to the rear entry, where drug dealers work?

"What a choice," Mire says.

A war at home

Says Wilmers: "To our kids, Iraq doesn't mean a lot. They study it on a map. They talk about it some. But they're more worried about the war in Over-the-Rhine."

The war is mainly over drug turf, Mire says. She sees signs of post-traumatic stress in some students. Some aren't eating, sleeping or behaving as usual. Others don't react to the sound of gunshots. Or they act as if killings are ho-hum.

Some upset students hide it from teachers, Wilmers says; they don't want to admit they're afraid of their neighborhood. But their pain comes out. They're easily distracted, less able to cope with school work.

Washington Park has been focusing on improving reading, but when shootings happen, Wilmers says, "Reading comes second."

"Our kids are tough, pretty resilient. They aren't coming in with their heads hanging down. But our kids miss school because of funerals."

Rothenberg's grief counselor, Maureen Donnelly, comes Thursdays for group and individual sessions.

Grief counselors at Cincinnati schools helped 2,000 kids last year, she says. Nearly half needed help dealing with homicides.

Some kids who're mourning slain neighbors or relatives wear T-shirts with photos or death dates of the deceased.

"It's almost like they died in glory, protecting their turf," Mire says.

Besides Wilmers, Washington Park employs a part-time nurse, a part-time psychologist, a parent resource person and others to create a safe haven for its 470 students.

There's also a cadre of parents escorting groups of kids to and from school, Wilmers says.

But it's not enough to be safe around the school. If kids see drug deals going down right outside their classroom windows, they don't want to leave at the end of the day.

Mire believes that police officers could help by volunteering in schools and walking, not driving, through Over-the-Rhine.

Wilmers says adults should speak up more for kids and what they have to endure.

Both are right.

We need to mobilize against this war in our streets.

E-mail damos@enquirer.com or phone 768-8395.




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