Solution to youth violence involves entire community

The dates change, but not the headlines.

On Nov. 22, 1997, we interviewed community leaders after three local teens were charged in connection with two homicides within the space of one week. The headline read, “New London Killings Turn Focus to Youth Issues.”

On Dec. 2, 2010, we quoted some of the same community leaders after six local teens were charged with the stabbing death of Matthew Chew in downtown New London in a series of stories, one of them headlined, “Officials seek answers after recent acts of youth violence in New London.”

Violence continues to take its toll on young people here and elsewhere. They lose their freedom or their lives because somebody was bored, felt disrespected or was protecting his drug turf.

I came across the earlier article while researching the case of Bennie Gray Jr., whose family has hired an attorney and is trying to secure his early release from a 23-year prison sentence for manslaughter. Gray was 18 when he was charged with fatally shooting DeJohn Strong in a city parking lot. Gray’s cousin, Tavorus Fluker, was convicted of a lesser role in the shooting but is serving a 25-year prison sentence for attempting to murder another man in Groton in 2007.

In both incidents, 13 years apart, Day reporters interviewed city resident Ernest Hewett, a city councilor who later became a state representative. I spoke with Hewett again this week, and his thoughts on young people had not changed.

“You have to start early with children, or you’ll lose them,” Hewett said. "The 'Terrible Twos' turn into the 'Terrible Teens' and 'Terrible 20s'” if adults don’t correct children’s behavior and teach them what is expected of them.

And it’s not just up to parents and schools, he said. The entire community is responsible for its children.

In the wake of the Chew murder, Hewett started a program called “Dose of Reality” in which he brought at-risk city kids to the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center to speak with prisoners serving long sentences for violent crimes. Hewett said he continues to follow the progress of 14 children.

“They’re doing great,” he said. “They’re in school.”

He also is mentoring a young woman whose mother, a single parent, called Hewett when the girl got in trouble in school. Hewett said he checks in with both regularly and makes it clear that his expectations are high. He said the girl is flourishing.

Hewett lost his deputy house speaker position earlier this year after a remark he made was, he said, unfairly taken out of context. He said he has learned from his own life experiences.

Hewett told the story of the little boy who came across a slew of stranded starfish while walking on the beach. Knowing that if the starfish dried up, they would die, the boy began throwing them back into the water, one at a time. A man came along and asked the child what difference he thought he was going to make given the large number of beached starfish.

“The boy says, ‘Well, I helped one,’ ” Hewett said. “It’s not complicated. In order to help one, you gotta get out of your comfort zone and say to yourself, ‘It’s not about me and it never was.’ ”

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