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Midwest Democracy | Just give us safe places to have fun, KC teens say

Teens in Kansas City are bored and they just don’t think there are enough fun things to do in this town.

That’s the conclusion of a survey released Tuesday.

Of course, it only confirms what many adults have thought for years. But the survey — which for the first time reached out to hundreds of Kansas City teenagers — can now be used to help convince city officials and corporate funders that more needs to be done.

“The most frequent cause of problems associated with flash mobs or other acts of group violence reported by youth was youth boredom,” said the report, released to the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners.

The youths who participated in focus groups and in an online survey revealed a craving for more safe, fun activities such as movies, bowling alleys and venues for sports and talent shows. Some cited a lack of transportation as an obstacle, as well as a prevailing feeling that no place is safe.

“There ain’t nowhere you can go without having to worry about somebody getting pissed, somebody shooting, or somebody just trippin’ for no reason,” one participant said.

Mayoral spokesman Danny Rotert acknowledged that youth entertainment options in the city have shrunk and consolidated in recent years, in part due to the economy. And he said there’s only so much the city can do.

But he said the city will work creatively and reach out to the corporate community to develop more youth opportunities.

After three youths were shot on the Country Club Plaza in a chaotic incident last August, the city wanted more insights into the causes and possible remedies for youth flash mobs.

City officials wanted civic and philanthropic leaders to help fund solutions, but those groups first wanted a systematic study of the “youth voice.”

The Kansas City Area Research Consortium conducted the $25,000 study, which was paid for by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.

It featured focus groups in December and January involving 50 youths ages 13 to 24, and a survey in March of 280 youths, primarily high school students.

“It was very important for that youth perspective to be heard,” consortium director Leigh Anne Knight told the park board Tuesday.

While the youths who participated in the research remained anonymous, their comments were echoed by several high school students playing basketball Monday afternoon at the Southeast Community Center in Swope Park.

“There’s nothing to do in Kansas City,” said Tyron Thomas, 16, a Hogan Prep student. “That’s why we need things to do like amusement parks and stuff.”

Cameron Douglas, 17, a University Academy student, agreed that Kansas City needs more weekend activities and entertainment spots, “something to keep us out of trouble.” He said he and his friends would like to go to the movies or an arcade close to home, but the closest venues are on the Plaza or Independence Center.

The study results were released just as large groups are once again starting to congregate on weekend nights on the Plaza.

“The crowds have definitely been out,” police spokesman Steve Young said Tuesday. Despite large clusters of kids and some minor scuffles and fights, no one has been arrested.

The curfew for minors unaccompanied by adults currently is midnight on weekends, but reverts to 9 p.m. on the Plaza and four other entertainment districts on Friday night, May 25, the start of Memorial Day weekend.

Young said police officers are maintaining a significant presence on the Plaza to keep the public safe but are not trying to intimidate youths to stay away.

“We’re not trying to do anything to keep them from being there,” he said. “We want the behavior to be appropriate.”

Councilman John Sharp, head of the council’s public safety committee, said teenagers are justified in their frustration at the lack of entertainment options.

“The kids are absolutely right,” he said.

Over the past few decades, Sharp noted, the central city and south Kansas City have lost “scores” of restaurants, bowling alleys, skating rinks, movie theaters and other places that provided wholesome entertainment. He said many of those places closed even though they were often packed with African-American customers.

So teens say there’s a good reason they gather on the Plaza. It’s perceived as safe, inexpensive, has a movie theater and is a place to see and be seen.

Sweeping study

Researchers involved in the Kansas City study said they were not aware of any other such social media study, involving so many youth, being done nationally.

“Something specific like flash mobs is a new issue. We’re not aware of any systematic work on this,” said Brian Houston, the report’s lead author and an assistant professor of communications at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The study defined flash mobs, in general, as large groups sparked by social media.

“Youth now know where to go to run into a bunch of youth,” Houston said. “That’s new and changes the level of the gatherings.”

Houston noted that the youths were “very opinionated and very concerned about violence in Kansas City. That was, for me, the driving thing they talked about.”

The study also showed that, just because teenagers use social media to gather quickly, it doesn’t mean they’re looking for trouble.

Researcher Hyunjin Seo, assistant communications professor at the University of Kansas, was struck by how the teenagers consider flash mobs to be “fun, entertaining and benign” and a positive outlet without violent intent.

“So adults have to realize this is something they want to do,” she said. “We don’t necessary need to see flash mobs in a negative light.”

The problem arises when a few people intrude in a violent way. Some focus group participants called for more responsible parenting, while others recognized that some of the blame rests with the teenagers themselves.

“If we wanna change the way that people perceive us and the stereotypes that people have on us, then we as like an entire generation of African-American youth are gonna have to change,” one participant was quoted as saying.

Among the key findings:

• Youths are looking for ways to express themselves by connecting with others, and it’s not enough to just warehouse them. They called for more movie theaters, bowling alleys, entertainment restaurants like ESPN Zone or Dave and Busters, community/youth centers and more community center programs. Popular venues could include space for underground rappers and talent shows and sports facilities like the College Basketball experience.

• A summertime curfew alone isn’t enough. Youths want safe opportunities, in which there is a positive police presence and relationship-building but not a smothering or intimidating police show of force.

• The problem of violent flash mobs can’t be isolated from the larger prevalence of violence in the community, and efforts to reduce violent flash mobs should be connected to other violence prevention initiatives.

While the study was unusual in its outreach to hundreds of youths, its conclusions certainly were not new. They repeated a common refrain from past initiatives, including a 2006 Violent Crime Commission report and a summit meeting convened by former Police Chief Jim Corwin in 2010. Those initiatives also called for the community to come together to provide more safe, wholesome activities, but efforts always seemed to fizzle.

Still, Park Commissioner McClain Bryant said she monitored some of the focus groups and was encouraged by what she heard.

“They were asking for things that we already have,” she said. “They don’t know all the things that we have to offer.”

Bryant said she is working with the park department marketing staff to raise awareness and will reach out to young people from the focus groups to spread the word.

Park director Mark McHenry said the department had some success, particularly at the Hillcrest Community Center, when it provided extended programming on weekends last August. He said the city has budgeted $200,000 to again offer extended weekend hours at several community centers, mostly in June and July.

He said the programming for those centers is being designed to provide open mike nights, DJs, sports and other activities in line with the survey results.