School Stabbing Cast Long Shadow

School Stabbing Cast Long Shadow

Did Alexandria’s tough-on-crime approach in the 1990s work?

Teachers and administrators became increasingly concerned about the scene outside George Washington Middle School one sweltering July morning in 1996. That's why they summoned police officers to the school after neighbors reported young people hitting each other with cinder blocks. Concerns were mounting that the Arlandria-based Latin Homies were about to have some kind of a brawl with a gang from the West End known as the Los Bravos. Looking out the windows of the middle school, administrators could see the gang members assembling outside the school, and yet they decided to dismiss students anyway.

"I'm comfortable with the way they handled it," said School Board Chairman Stephen Kenealy at the time.

The two rival gangs were at each other's throats since the previous day, when some perceived slight happened in the cafeteria. The situation exploded outside George Washington Middle School, where one of the teenagers ended up swinging a knife as he was being kicked. When the brawl ended, one 16-year old was dead and another 16-year old was charged with murder. The community was shocked at the gang violence, and many people questioned by the School Board chairman would defend the decision to release students that afternoon instead of figuring out a way to secure the situation.

"It was the wrong decision," said former Superintendent Herb Berg during an Agenda Alexandria panel discussion earlier this week. "In hindsight, locking the students down into the classrooms where there was an adult teacher and others, and they're all in their room and the doors are closed and you hold people in place — I think that's the way most security directions are today."

THE 1996 STABBING of a summer school student offers a cautionary tale for a school system currently struggling to cope with the stabbing of an Alexandria High School student at the Bradlee Shopping Center in May. Perhaps the most immediate lesson is what kind of justice the court system will seek. In the 1996 case, the 16-year old who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter should have faced a maximum sentence of six months, but prosecutors asked for a 10-year sentence to send a message about crime in Alexandria. Circuit Court Judge Donald Haddock Sr. overrode sentencing guidelines and gave the teenager a five-year sentence.

"The judge struck a good balancing act," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Thomas Cullen at the time. "He sent a message that if you do things like this in this city, you can expect a lot of punishment."

But did all those tough-on-crime tactics work? 

According to the Prison Policy Institute, Virginia incarcerates more people per capita than virtually any independent democracy on earth. Virginia's incarceration rate is higher than the national average, and many people are now questioning the wisdom of the mass incarceration policies from the 1990s. The 1996 stabbing at George Washington Middle School happened at a time when crime rates were already declining, leading critics of mass incarceration to wonder if a different approach might have worked better.

"We're still living with most of those absurd laws that were implemented back then," said Brad Haywood, executive director of Justice Forward Virginia. "Virginia still transfers and certifies kids to be tried as adults. Kids as young as 14! I'm unaware of any reforms in Virginia that might have led a kid to stab another kid."

THESE DAYS, the Latin Homies and Los Bravos are a distant memory. But Police Chief Don Hayes says Alexandria still has gangs and "crews," young males engaging in violence and committing crimes. During a recent Agenda Alexandria forum on school safety, he said the crews are at work in the city's communities and in Alexandria schools using social media to gather intelligence about what the authorities are doing.

"They try to stay one step ahead of what we're doing," said Hayes.

Hayes also said people in Alexandria should not get the wrong idea about the level of crime in Alexandria, which he said is much lower than most people think. Part of that is because of how television news presents crime, a phenomenon that dates back to the era of eyewitness news and action news that wallowed in details about things like the 1996 stabbing at George Washington Middle School. Ultimately, many people argue, the threat of learning loss is a greater concern than the possibility of violent crime.

"With the loss of two years of education, it is a genuine crisis," said Berg at the conclusion of the Agenda Alexandria forum Monday night. "Children have to learn, and they're behind. And I don't see the urgency to get after it."