MAXWELL: No more excuses for misbehaving children

3/5/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Two pots of flowers rest on the ground beneath a badly damaged tree on 54th Avenue S. near Seventh Street. Tire tracks, rutted deeply in the lawn, end at the tree. A pile of branches pruned from the tree lies near the curb.

This place is where three African-American children _ Dortez Bizzell, 14, Rashad Golden, 14, and Candice Jennerich, 15 _ died in a stolen 2001 Neon at about 5 a.m. Monday.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, two police officers had been investigating complaints about people trying to break into cars in the parking lots of the Queensmark Apartments on 54th Avenue S. One of the officers saw the red Neon exit the apartment complex and speed away on 54th Avenue.

The officer turned on his flashing lights but turned them off and declined to give chase after the Neon ran a traffic light and raced toward Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

Moments later, Dortez, Rashad and Candice were dead.

Although I do not live near the scene, I drove there because I wanted to see where three more of our young had been lost to individual thoughtlessness and community failure. I went there because I am a black man, a father, a grandfather, a son, a brother, an uncle. I went there because I am a teacher. I went there because I am angry. And I went there because, as a writer, I have a forum from which to voice what I consider to be a few truths about my fellow African-Americans and me and our responsibilities to our children.

Why were these kids out on Sunday after midnight? Didn’t they have classes early the next morning? Didn’t they need to sleep, to rest for the next day’s rigors at school? Didn’t they worry that their parents would be angry at their being out so late? Didn’t they worry about getting into trouble with the police?

Naive questions? I do not think so. These are normal questions that normal people ask about children. But something is profoundly wrong in black culture because, for too many black adults, my questions are naive. In far too many instances, adulthood and childhood have been turned on their heads.

The question in many homes today is: Who is raising whom? I do not have the percentage, but I know that a high number of black households are headed by single women who did not finish high school, who have no viable job skills, who have drug or alcohol addictions or both, who themselves were reared in single-parent or abusive homes. In too many instances also, rootless, abusive men come and go.

All too often, the children are rearing themselves. If they do not make the rules, they pick and choose which rules to follow. I am always shocked to see scores of black schoolchildren on some of St. Petersburg’s toughest streets after midnight.

I have met many black parents who are afraid to discipline their children. I do not know when we turned the corner, but many black children have no limits on what they can do. And the days are gone when a stranger would dare tell a Dortez that he should not steal a car.

I recently asked a black boy, as politely as I could, to move his bicycle out of the doorway of a convenience store so that customers could enter and exit. He said: “F— you, old m—–f—–.” He then stood up in my face, his posture daring me to make a move. I did make a move: I got into my Blazer and went to another store.

Earlier, I said that I am angry. I am angry that we black people continue to defend the indefensible. At least two of the parents of the dead children are questioning police procedure. According to all reports, the police followed proper chase procedure, and their action had nothing to do with the fatal crash.

Even if the police had chased the Neon, they had nothing to do with these kids being out in the early morning driving a stolen car.

Blacks need to start placing blame for our children’s behavior and the consequences of that behavior where they belong: squarely on our own shoulders. When I do not demand that my child is at home on Sunday night, I cannot blame anyone else for my failures and my child’s misdeeds.

I am angry that black parents almost always side with their children in disputes with other adults, especially in our schools. Too many children are taught that only they and their families are right. I am angry that radical black groups and individuals are apologists for black children who misbehave.

I am angry that many blacks will be angry at this column. I am angry that we are losing a generation of young blacks to violence, drugs, various other criminal activity and low-academic achievement. No more excuses. We are losing our children.