When Headlines Hit Home

We all know bad things happen to good people. We don’t need crime statistics to prove it. Just open up the paper or flip on the news. I’m so used to it, I rarely bother reading beyond the headlines. This time, though, was different.

“Teens jump Madison man on Metro.”

This time, the man was my friend. This time, the bad thing happened across the street from my house, and in broad daylight.

“A passenger was attacked on a Metro Transit bus and then chased and beaten by five young people Tuesday afternoon on the north side, Madison police reported.”

The passenger is a fifty-six-year-old who takes the bus to work when the weather isn’t conducive to riding his bike. A gentle, give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back sort of fellow, the passenger has lived in the neighborhood for fifteen years, long enough to intuit change.

“I know one thing,” the passenger said, rubbing the sore shoulder he promised his worried daughter he’d get checked out. “I’ll never ride the 22 again.”

The route, he says, is regularly inhabited by rambunctious teenage boys, chests puffed full of adolescent bravado, looking for trouble. The passenger had experienced this aggressive move once before—legs stretched out into the aisle, forcing him to maneuver awkwardly around them. Except this time, there was contact. One of the young men reached for his wallet. The passenger resisted by slapping him on the back of the head. A second retaliated, punching the passenger multiple times in the head and upper torso as he fled out the front door. He ran away, but they followed him, and then punched him, tripped him and kicked him in the back after he landed on the ground.

Within hours, four of the five had been arrested and charged with battery. One boy got away.

A few days later I called Joel DeSpain, erstwhile TV reporter and public information officer for the Madison Police Department. My reporting skills were rusty, and I needed help finding the incident report, plus I wondered if he could shed any more light on what had happened and why. He remembered writing up the report and informed me of several other incidents on busses recently—one just the day before, when a fifteen-year-old suspected gang member stole a wallet out of a young woman’s purse. Police tracked him down and arrested him at gunpoint.

If it made me feel any better, DeSpain intoned, marauding bands of teenagers weren’t exclusive to my neck of the woods.

Twenty years ago, a community-wide effort to fight poverty and crime on the north side had worked; today Vera Court in particular is a much healthier and safer place to live. But populations and housing patterns have changed, and poverty is more dispersed. To DeSpain’s point, so is the delinquency and violent crime. Cold comfort, I thought.

The week before my friend was hurt, I spent the day at Sherman Middle School, participating in the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools program “Principal for a Day.” Community members are invited to spend the morning absorbing all things terrific about our schools and the educators who run them. I was reminded of the teaching miracles that take place in classrooms every day. But I also learned something unexpected, and perhaps more important. Mike Hernandez, the real principal, doesn’t just run a school; he runs a community, where civility and respect aren’t just preached, they are practiced, top down.

Mike and his staff are neighborly, and the kids are neighborly back.

It’s too bad that story didn’t make the headlines.

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