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Busing the kids


The big local news last week was this: Thanks to a series of fights at the downtown transit center, the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority won't renew its contract with the city school district to bus students to and from school.

The RTS announcement was followed, predictably, by finger pointing: at RTS officials, who are accused of pulling the plug abruptly; at the school district, for unleashing violent students on the public; at RTS and the district for not being able to work this out amicably; at the mayor (who has zero control over the transit service and the school district); and, of course, at the students and their parents.

So now we have another tense deliberation between two public institutions. And by ostracizing the students, we've reinforced the slanderous public perception that all city students are wild, violent thugs.

Doesn't anybody want to talk about the fights and why they're happening? (Doesn't anybody see the connection between the transit center fights and the violence in the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore? Between the transit center fights, the Baltimore violence, and the Rochester riots of 1964?)

These fights aren't new. Pre-transit center, students were fighting at the Liberty Pole and elsewhere downtown. In a shopping mall.In a movie theater. There was a highly publicized close-down of Seabreeze amusement park when law-enforcement officials got wind of a fight planned there. And there continue to be fights in schools. And in neighborhoods.

There aren't fights every day at the transit center, any more than there are fights every day in city schools and neighborhoods. But there are fights. And there is Grade A violence, including the recent stabbing of one student by another in the transit center.

Clearly something has to be done to insure safe public transportation - for students and non-students. And I'll bet that RTS and the school district will renew talks and find a way out of this immediate problem.

But I also bet that then most of the community will forget about it. And I bet that the fights will just take place somewhere else.

Because to come up with a real solution to the fights, we have to address their roots - and the roots of the seemingly almost daily shootings in Rochester's inner-city neighborhoods. And nobody wants to do that.

The school district isn't causing the fights. RGRTA isn't causing the fights. The mayor isn't causing the fights. We can point fingers at the students and their families, and obviously teenagers shouldn't fight, shouldn't stab people, shouldn't shoot people. But at what point do we stop pretending that this has nothing to do with poverty?

The evidence is clear: Decades of concentrated poverty is having a profound effect on families who have lived in it for generations.

A neighborhood of high poverty and frequent violence has an effect on residents' emotional health. It has an effect on their physical health. It has an effect on their education, on their job prospects. (Among the latest evidence: "The stress of growing up poor can hurt a child's brain development starting before birth," the journal Nature reported last week, citing a study by a team led by neuroscientists at Columbia University and Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.) Add destructive public policies in criminal justice, education, housing, wages.... Layer it all with racism....

In the New York Times on Sunday, actor Sonja Sohn of "The Wire," who worked with Baltimore youth for five years, wrote of "a hopelessness on the streets of Baltimore that ran so deep that it seemed to have killed the spirit of the people."

How many more studies and focus groups and task forces and calls to action do we need?

We are appalled when we hear about a teacher being assaulted in school, a bystander waiting for a bus knocked to the ground and injured when a fight breaks out at the transit center. Are we appalled enough at the conditions breeding that violence that we'll do something about it?