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Social media can up stakes in teen conflicts

January 5, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — Social media has become a breeding ground for feuds between minors, sometimes leading to violence.

Juveniles are sometimes emboldened to say things from the safety of a computer that they might not say in person, said Harold Dimbo, a retired Bridgeport police detective and director of Project Longevity-Bridgeport, which works with police to reduce violence in the city. There are other chapters in Hartford and New Haven.

Sometimes such internet exchanges escalate grievances.

“It can be something as simple as a street sign or a flat tire on a car of someone they have a problem with,” Dimbo said. “People see those simple posts as a challenge or as disrespect.”

Police say such was the case in the drive-by shooting death of 12-year-old Clinton Howell, who was gunned down on a Bridgeport street on Dec. 18, killed by a bullet that was not meant for him.

A post of a Willow Street sign had been posted on social media by Howell’s cousin that night. Tajay Chambers, 18, who had an ongoing dispute with the cousin, took the photo of the sign as a challenge and drove to the area with three others in the car, eventually taking a gun and firing, police said.

Howell was killed; his cousin was not hit.

Kate Rivera, a local social justice advocate and member of Bridgeport Generation-Now! Action Council, said she had heard that version of the fatal shooting, but could not confirm its accuracy.

Speaking in general terms, she said, “Things that happen online have been known to carry over into real life and have very real consequences.”

Chambers, 16-year-old Alexander Bolanos, a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old are charged with Howell’s death. A judge has ordered Bolanos tried as an adult. The 14-year-old’s and 12-year-old’s cases are being processed in state juvenile court.

Despite that incident and a triple shooting two weeks later, Bridgeport Police Chief Armando Perez said juvenile crime is on the decline in the city. But the chief say more must be done in the city to help young people avoid or peacefully resolve conflicts

Intervention

On Christmas night, a 15-year-old shot three people in Bridgeport, police said. The victims suffered non-life-threatening injuries and the gun-wielding teen was charged by Bridgeport police.

The teen who fired, police said, is the brother of one of the four people arrested in connection with Howell’s death. Police say the shootings were unrelated.

Although exact figures were not available, Perez said juvenile crime rates in Bridgeport were “a little lower” in 2018 than the year before. He attributed that decline to Project Longevity and the department’s gang unit and the youth and detective bureaus, which were recently combined.

“We’re looking into anything that will help our children,” Perez added. “There’s got to be something we can do.”

Rivera said juveniles need to see a significant increase in trauma-informed social workers trained in restorative justice, and for school psychologists and guidance counselors to serve students in Bridgeport’s schools more effectively.

“All of our students are affected by urban trauma and gun violence, whether it’s direct or indirectly,” Rivera said. “Let’s add trauma-informed mental health professionals (to the schools).”

Following some research in 2015 in which she compared a Bridgeport school and a Westport school with similar student populations, Rivera said she found that the suburban school had roughly triple the amount of mental health professionals as the urban school.

She said StreetSafe Bridgeport, an organization that helps steer youth away from violence, has been effective in helping in the city, but needs to see substantial growth in its staffing and funding as well.

Other options

Dimbo said Project Longevity and Bridgeport police are also working on a mentoring program that would partner at-risk youth with people in their 20s and 30s who were involved in crime and got out of it.

“This is something we’ve been wanting to do for a while,” Perez in a recent interview. “We need to get ahead of the game.”

“We want to be there before they do the crime,” Dimbo added.

Rivera said if a mentoring program moves forward, the mentors, “must be screened, trained in trauma, paid and consistent.”

She said the city and the state need to prove juveniles are a priority by devoting money to programs that focus on youth.

“We’re saying, through our current budget, that our youth are not a priority — that their safety and their education are not a priority,” Rivera said. “If we’re saying as a community that our youth are important … then we need to show that. The city needs to come up with the money and the state, too.”

And, she added, juveniles should have some input going forward.

“No one’s asking the kids what they need,” Rivera said. “The kids need to have a seat at the table when we are discussing things that affect them.”

Anyone looking to connect with Project Longevity can visit the site at Project-Longevity.org/Bridgeport or call the Bridgeport office at 203-696-2049.

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