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Death comes too early, too often, students lament at peace summit

The Rev. Peter St. Jean had a simple but chilling request for the group of 70 students, parents and teachers gathered at his church, Greater Emmanuel Temple, for a daylong Peace Summit on Saturday morning.

"Stand if you have never experienced homicide," he said.

A handful seated in the Richmond Avenue church stood up. Most, about 60, remained grimly in their seats.

The young people spoke of cousins, friends and neighbors who had been buried too soon, who hadn't had a chance to live out their lives. The students, though, still had hope. They came to the summit, organized by the Community Action Organization, to discuss the causes of youth violence and how to prevent it.

One 17-year-old told the audience through tears of her 18-year-old cousin being murdered. She said she thought teenagers didn't have enough adults in their lives offering advice without judging them.

"I'm still hurt," she said. "I don't want to see my little cousins go through this."

Last year, Buffalo's homicide rate jumped more than 20 percent -- to 73 deaths, up from 56 the year before, the largest percent increase in the state.

Also disturbing to officials is that killers' ages are dropping. Last year, at least eight teenagers were charged with murder. The victims are younger, too. Four were under 13 years old, and 11 were between ages 14 and 19.

"It's a shame, it's a disgrace, and we don't want to see it happening," Mayor Byron W. Brown told the students. The city has taken several steps to fight the problem, including starting a gun buyback program, allowing residents to turn in guns for cash, he said.

At the summit, students said that the reasons for the increase in violence involve family, school and the media. Parents aren't paying enough attention; television shows and video games are glorifying crime; and students aren't getting the education they need to find a job to stay off the streets, the young people said.

Shaquanna Franklin, 19, said the media advocates violence, and children don't have people in their lives who can teach them otherwise.

Young people are "killing themselves because their parents aren't stopping them," she said.

One parent in the audience agreed. "We're afraid of our children," he said.

Others said schools have become little more than "social clubs," where students get together to show off their new clothes and hang out.

"We have to learn how to challenge the education system," said Sabalena Brown, 17, a student at Burgard Vocational High School. Her peers, she said, had done just that, persuading the administration to incorporate African-American studies into the curriculum.

During the daylong summit, students also watched part of an unfinished documentary called "Lessons From Homicides: The Buffalo Story," which is scheduled to be released in October. The documentary, directed by St. Jean, pastor of Greater Emmanuel Temple Church, shows how homicides have shaped the lives of families and communities.

The students also participated in a workshop on getting a job.

Ultimately, the organizers said, the push to end the violence must come from young people whose lives are shaped by it.

"Nobody is immune," St. Jean told the group. "The life you lose may be your own."

email: aerickson@buffnews.com

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