Teenagers, fights, and downtown Rochester 

You've read the stories: As hundreds of teenagers change RTS buses downtown after school, fights erupt, crowds gather, chaos ensues, and the police try to restore order.

The fights don't happen every day. But they happen often enough to be a serious problem. And last week, the chaos had a new element: somebody fired a gun.

Nobody was hurt, but that's the only piece of good news out of this mess. Downtown office workers feel intimidated. Business owners, restaurateurs, rental agents, and developers are worried.

Mayor Tom Richards issued a stern warning to school district officials: The district's current student transportation system, which deposits several hundred high school students on Main Street every afternoon, is "unacceptable and cannot continue."

So school district officials are talking to transit officials, whose buses high-school students ride to and from school. Bus routes will change, presumably. The district will assign personnel to be present downtown during the transfer periods. And the Rochester Police Department will, in Richards' words, "continue to deploy significant resources to deal with problems that may arise."

And everybody will cross their fingers, I guess.

This is such a delicate time for downtown Rochester. You can see the little spurts of new life: more people living there, new businesses opening, new apartments and condos under way. And the arts and entertainment offerings downtown are simply exploding. This didn't happen by accident. The city has offered strategic incentives, and developers have responded with major investments.

But these are little steps forward – important steps, to be sure, but little steps. And it won't take much to reverse them.

Government officials, school district officials, transit officials, and business leaders will continue to huddle and try to figure out what to do about the convergence of crowds of teenagers downtown after school.

I hope the conversation continues after the bus routes are changed. Because the bus routes aren't the problem. They make it easier for the problem to break out, by depositing large numbers of people in one area, but they're not the problem.

Remember the Memorial Day when Seabreeze amusement park closed because of rumors that fights were being planned over social media? Remember the fights at this year's Lilac Festival? Remember the fights last month at the Regal Cinema in Irondequoit?

These had nothing to do with bus transfers on Main Street. (And then there was the day when police were alerted to a crowd of teenagers headed downtown, walking, from East High School.)

Something's going on among Rochester's young people that we need to understand – and find a way to deal with. And rerouting buses simply deals with the end result, not the cause. The fights are like boils erupting.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't redo the bus routes. We should. The convergence of hundreds of teenagers on Main Street downtown has created a condition in which fights can not only break out but can make the area unsafe, for other students and for people who work, live, or visit downtown.

Students have the same right as everyone else to be downtown. But no group of people can, by their numbers and their actions, so intimidate others that they take control of the space.

The number of students involved in the fights is small. But the crowds that gather around them are not. That magnifies the intimidation, and the danger.

This is a complex issue, but that hasn't stopped people from pointing fingers and shifting responsibility: It's the school district's responsibility to fix this! It's the cops' responsibility! And, of course: It's the parents' fault!

Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, took a different tack when I talked with her late last week.

"The adults in this community have failed these young people," she said. And she means everybody: parents, schools, government, politicians, businesses, institutions.... Everybody has to take responsibility, Zimmer-Meyer said. "We can not run away from it."

As we talked about the fights, Zimmer-Meyer also brought up the low graduation rate in Rochester schools, most of whose students are black or Hispanic – and the high incarceration rate of black men... and poverty.

Zimmer-Meyer is right: these are all related. We can't talk about problems like graduation rates and Main Street fights in isolation. We have to address them all, and all at the same time.

What should we do? Zimmer-Meyer cited the need for jobs, for job training, for the school district to do a better job....

But she also honed in on the key issue: the poverty that we have allowed to grow in the core of this community. Many of the city's schools have student poverty rates of more than 90 percent. We can keep denying that this concentration has an effect, we can keep blaming teachers or police or city officials or parents – or we can take the gunshot downtown last week as a wake-up call.

Obviously we have to stop the fights – on Main Street, in movie theaters, and elsewhere. But insisting that the school district and police bear the sole responsibility for doing it is a lazy bit of buck-passing. Where are the school parents' groups? The ministers? The staffs of the settlement houses and rec centers? The neighborhood groups?

And by the way: stopping the fights downtown will be futile if that's all we do. The teenagers and young adults for whom violence is now part of the culture will find other venues for their score settling.

It isn't that we haven't tried to do something for Rochester's young people. Every time you turn around, you see news of another initiative: in education, in health care, in childhood development. We have to keep doing those things, and strengthen them.

But what are we doing about the poverty and the culture it is breeding? That is a much harder thing to tackle – hard even to talk about. But until we start, we'll keep treating eruptions of the boils, not the underlying cause.

"Something's going on among Rochester teenagers that we need to understand. And rerouting buses deals with the end result, not the cause."

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