Sep 13, 2023 - News
Town Talker

D.C. area reckons with uptick in youth violence

D.C.'s "safe passage" program deploys adults to help students commute safely. Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A brawl among high schoolers in Montgomery County that left several students injured is vexing parents and political leaders in the Washington region.

Why it matters: The mayhem is part of a recent rise in violent incidents among area teenagers that are forcing local educators and officials to adopt new strategies to keep kids safe, from school metal detectors to D.C.'s youth curfew.

What's happening: Five teens were arrested last week in connection with the recent fight that broke out near a Metro station after a Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Walter Johnson football game. A 16-year-old is being charged as an adult.

  • Police say they don't know what started the fight.

The big picture: "We have seen a significant uptick in violence over the last two to three years, and I think it's almost been exclusively driven by 14- to 21-year-old boys and young men," Alexandria City Mayor Justin Wilson tells Axios.

  • The town's public high school ā€” the largest in Virginia with 4,000 kids ā€” installed metal detectors for the first time this year.

Prince George's County went further, requiring students at select schools to have clear backpacks as they walk through weapons detection devices.

  • Just as I was inquiring about recent incidents that forced the measures, two schools went on lockdown on Monday in Lanham. A girl who attended DuVal High School had been shot and killed.

D.C. began a juvenile curfew on Sept. 1, although reports say such measures did not reduce crime in other cities.

  • A week before that, a 16-year-old girl was accused of stabbing and killing another teen at 2:10am. The dispute? Over a packet of Sweet 'N Sour sauce at the McDonald's on 14th and U Street, police said.

What I'm hearing: Many parents, educators, and experts suggest two causes for the spike in disruptive behavior: the pandemic and social media.

  • During the pandemic, youth mental health challenges skyrocketed. Many young people were isolated, and without positive influences. Student test scores tanked.
  • "Among people who make policy there's kind of a fantasy vision that everyone hunkered down in their house and parents were working from home and kids were in Zoom school," says Lyric Winik, the most recent former head of the parents association at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High. "That's not the reality for a lot of this population."

Research shows that "kids need to have really excellent relationships with at least one adult in the school building," says Paul Kihn, D.C.'s deputy mayor for education.

Especially in D.C., beefs are amplified on Instagram, sometimes through boastful music videos and insults between rival neighborhoods.

  • With easier access to guns, the results are increasingly deadly. An 18-year-old rapper was shot and killed in D.C. in 2020 after an Instagram feud, ProPublica reports.

What they're saying: When it hits social media, "that beef between me and you becomes a bigger thing because everyone's seen our faces," explains Ron Moten, who works on violence interruption. "If I go across town to go to school, I have to protect myself. So now I might be carrying a weapon."

  • Over the course of my reporting, several people said they had heard some kids call themselves "Fox 5," because the havoc they cause lands on TV.

Zoom out: Social media can give a "warped sense of morality," says Kostadin Kushlev, a psychology professor at Georgetown University.

  • It can lead groups of people online "to get more and more extreme. And the reason for that is because people want to fit in, but they also want to stand out."

āœšŸ¼ Town Talker is a weekly column on local politics and power. Drop me a line about the talk of the town: [email protected].

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