As part of Rotary Club of St. Thomas Sunrise’s Practice Peace Initiative, St. Thomas-St. John Fire Chief Andre Smith addressed the topic of troubled youth in the community on Tuesday.
Smith easily engaged the group’s attention, speaking of violence in its embryonic form. Smith called it "the time when they stop skipping," when youngsters no longer express the joy of being alive.
With a winning earnestness, Smith said, "Kids should always want to skip." He recounted experiences he and his family have had dealing with violence; heartbreaking situations, as when his wife, a teacher, sees a name in the paper in a crime and realizes that the perpetrator is one of her former students.
Smith spoke of the direct violence firemen experience – arson, for instance – and its impact on the community. He also cited instances of victims running into a fire station as a safe harbor, "but you don’t know if they will be followed by perpetrators," he added.
But the most chilling example he gave involved the behavior of grownups, parents flocking to Joseph Gomez Elementary School last month after a structural collapse which sent one teacher to the hospital but harmed no students.
"So many parents rushed to the school, ignoring the pleas of school officials who assured the parents that the students were all uninjured," Smith said. "That impacted the work of the rescue team. The parents showed no respect to the school officials and charged in, grabbed their children and left, leaving school officials unable to do an accurate head count."
This is not the kind of role model the community needs, he said.
Smith spoke of what he called the "violent psyche," acting out in an aggressive highly charged, emotional manner, such as many of the Gomez parents. This behavior is then emulated by youngsters, he implied.
It used to be that little boys wanted to grow up to be a fireman, to wear the red helmet and get to save people. That’s sadly not the case today, Smith said. In fact, he cited a problem firefighters face with kids throwing rocks at them from a safe distance, when they are fighting fires.
"It’s not an isolated incidence," he said. "They have no respect for the law."
Smith, who has a 25-year career with the Fire Service under his belt, lamented many of the recruits he gets today.
"There is a growing trend with them, this kind of false bravado they have about themselves," he said. "For instance, when I asked one if he had a criminal record, he said, ‘You mean here or away?’"
Smith said, "I ran into that attitude maybe once early in my career, but I see it more and more as time goes by. It’s a negative, aggressive characteristic."
The fire chief was quick to add that the majority of recruits are good men, "but," he said, "the fact is that attitude exists and it is growing."
He spoke of his wife’s experiences in the elementary school classroom, which he said parallels this same attitude. He recounted an incident his wife had told him of a father who came to school for his son who had done some mischief. "She told me he said to the youngster, ‘I’m so sick and tired of you. Why don’t you run in front of a bus?’”
Something is "very wrong" in our community, Smith said.
He said it used to be that hardly anyone knew someone who had been killed or injured in a violent incident. He said when his wife asked that in the classroom today, almost all the elementary kids raised their hands.
Smith said it’s all of us who should be concerned. "This isn’t the community it was when I first began my career."
There are solutions, Smith said, but he said it takes all of us, a community.
Citing the Junior Firefighters Corp. as a good place to start, Smith said the youngsters learn about firefighting, fire prevention, arson and fire safety, CPR, rescue and first aid, but that’s hardly all. There are many programs, including counseling and mentoring for youth.
Smith said any youngster, girl or boy, from 8 years old to high school is welcome to join. One can get more information on the Junior Firefighters Corp. by calling 774-7610, he said.
Smith is an engaging, positive personality. As he introduced himself Tuesday, he said he was unaccustomed to public speaking. "That’s more Daryl George’s thing," he said of the Fire Services assistant director.
Smith received a standing ovation after his presentation, which Rotary Club President Shaun Pennington said was a first in her four years in Rotary.
Pennington sees the local Rotary community as the group to best bring Rotary’s influence and resources to bear in beginning to turn the tide of the serious violence in the community. She said she believes that the effort can result in a 75 percent reduction of violence in the community in 10 years.
For more information on these speakers or how you can support this community effort, contact Pennington at 340-777-8144.