21 JANUARY 2003

Academics, police join with teens.

Youth are key to Toronto gang forum

Seated with a panel of academics, community workers and police officers was university student Amalraj Joseph. He didn't come armed with statistics or studies, but his views on youth violence drew loud applause. "They talk with theories and I come here with experience," the 19-year-old said yesterday during a city-sponsored session on youth gangs.

When Joseph first came to a tough Scarborough neighbourhood from Sri Lanka, he endured racial slurs from his classmates. By high school, he was witnessing drive-by shootings and lost eight friends to crime. "I came from a country where there was war. But there's a type of war here, too," the teenager said. He credits a community mentor who led him on the path to university, while some of his friends headed to jail.

The symposium, Common Cause: Youth Safety in the City, featured a mix of young voices and professional expertise.

And the first step to finding solutions, said experts speaking at the youth gang forum, is to put the problem in perspective. Differentiating between criminal gangs and a group of friends who socialize together is essential, says University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley.

"Social gangs are just a network of youths that have things in common," explained Toronto police Detective Constable Craig Peddle, who works with the city's gang task force. "Just because I'm `sagging and ragging' (wearing baggy pants and bandanas) means I'm a criminal street gang member, and that's probably the biggest myth we need to address." That drew applause from a group of students who said they were frustrated because they're often targeted by the way they dress or where they hang out.

One of the most powerful presentations at the conference was a short video produced by members of the Regent Park Focus Community Coalition, a 10-year-old organization that was formed as part of the provincial government's plan to promote healthy and safe communities. The video began with images of tombstones interspersed with crime and poverty statistics. It ends with the final minutes of the lives of Dwayne Robotham, 18, and Segun Farquharson, 24, two Toronto men killed recently.

"I really think coming to events like this and having such a wide variety of people talking helps remind everyone of their responsibilities," said the Regent Park Coalition co-ordinator Adonis Huggins.

By Michelle Shephard

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