Teens who break law need to know there are consequences

New London is a fine small New England city dating to 1646, with a civic life reflecting involvement in all of America's major historical periods.

Its current role, besides being "a garden spot of the world" in which to live and to contribute, is the home of three institutions of higher learning; General Dynamics/Electric Boat Co., which continues since World War I to produce most of this country's submarine force; and a vibrant arts and cultural center for the region.

New London is also an urban center, with a substantial minority population that it has taken pains since the mid-1960s to integrate into its civic and political structure, with a great deal of success.

But now comes something new: not the occasional vandalism, drug use and minor criminality that are constantly overblown by our neighbors in the 'burbs; but random violence, severe and unexpected.

The recent murder of a young man on Huntington Street, by a group of young people who were "bored," according to the arrest warrant, and the mugging of a pedestrian on State Street, has greatly elevated the perceived threat level for all in this community and beyond.

Leaders afraid to offend

The response to date has been too muted, as if designed not to "offend." The victims were greatly "offended." The accused are well beyond the age of reason and well into life activities reserved in the past for mature adults. They are not children. And if they have not yet learned from their parents and teachers and spiritual leaders that actions have consequences - sometimes severe - they must learn now.

And yet, some leaders of the community continue to draw the wrong conclusions and to espouse the wrong messages. They continue to lead their flock in the wrong direction and away from individual responsibility and self-improvement.

Drawing from The Day's recent front-page article by Kathleen Edgecomb titled "Chew case casts shadow on MLK Day," published Jan. 18, some quotations made at the recent Martin Luther King Memorial activities include:

• "We have young people who are hurting and feel helpless, in their minds." (from the Rev. Benjamin K. Watts)

• Connecting the Matthew Chew murder with "the hiring in the city of seven new firefighters and 20 new teachers, all of whom are white, speaker after speaker called upon the community to change things." City Councilor and Rev. Wade Hyslop said: "Our children need people they can look up to who look like them."

The news story also reported that Rev. Hyslop said the community not only failed Mr. Chew, who was murdered walking home from his job, but it has also failed the six accused teenagers.

Wrong. The parents are failing their children. The schools are failing their students. And the community leaders have been failing their communities for a long time.

Corrective action

What we need are immediate remedial actions and long-term deliberations. The latter will be the purview of the large committee developed by the City Council.

The former should be in the form of effective prosecution of the accused, identification and disbanding of youth gangs connected with any illegal actions, consideration to implementing loitering and curfew ordinances, neighborhood watches and reports, surveillance cameras throughout the downtown areas and, especially, remedial actions by the school system to offer and to demand engagement by its charges.

Actions must have consequences. These are not "children." And they must learn that they will be either educated and productive members of a color-blind community or they are outlaws. That is their choice. And that is the responsibility of all of us.

George A. Sprecace, M.D., J.D., is a former member and president of the New London Board of Education and a former member of the City Council.

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