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A Debate Rekindled

By John Douglas

On the second floor of Baltimore City College High School on a Thursday afternoon in October, 22 students pace the room which buzzes like a bee hive with 22 different monologues going on simultaneously. The students are preparing for a weekend debate tournament, speed-reading from their research, racing through topics such as the Treaty of Neah Bay, whaling practices, colonization, and Manifest Destiny.

The debate captain announces time is up. The cacophony ends and the students freeze. “Now, replace every third word with cucumber,” he saysThe students resume pacing and reading. When they are finished, a group of seven debaters move into a quiet classroom across the hall to weigh in on a topic of debate among teens across Baltimore City, the revised curfew.

In August, Baltimore instituted one of the most restrictive curfew laws in the country, requiring teens under 14 to be in by 9 p.m. on weeknights and by 10 p.m. on weekends. Those under 17 need to be in by 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends. The City College debate team is divided on the merits of the curfew—and argues from a variety of standpoints.

Some students are worried that this will make the already strained relationship between the police and the community worse. Freshman Jewoine Wilson says, “around police officers I do not feel comfortable. I do not talk to police officers… I feel so threatened and they treat us so badly.”

Some students say they have been detained or harassed by local police already. They wonder if the curfew will be fairly enforced.

In the first two months of the curfew’s existence, 126 out of 147 stops were for African American youth.

“It seems race plays a role in where and how the curfew is enforced,” says freshman Sam Sheehan.

Many curfew stops occur in tourist areas, like the Inner Harbor. Junior Desmond Campbell argues that the city is trying to protect its image by having cops pick up kids in the Harbor area. “Downtown Baltimore is a very lucrative place for Baltimore City,” he says. “They want to protect image of city with tourists and visitors.”

Some students are even skeptical about the curfew’s stated intent, safety. “The curfew is more about presenting a better image for the public,” says Wilson. “People should care more about teenagers in a communal way. Parents have to change the way teens think about life, how they approach social lives in general before you try and reform through laws.”

Jamesha Caldwell, a freshman, has other ideas for protecting Baltimore youth. Baltimore teens “need better things” to engage them, she says, complaining that teens don’t want to be “trapped in the house.” She worries, “some kids don’t have access to computers and different things like that, [the city] should build these programs and enlist children in these things. Then kids wouldn’t be outside breaking curfew.” The programs she refers to include The Inner Harbor Project, Youth Empowered Society (YES), Baltimore Youth Opportunity (Yo!), The Youth Alliance Network, Urban Leadership Institute, and the Baltimore Urban Debate League, where this group of teens often compete.

But not all of the debaters agree that Baltimore should be responsible for making kids come inside at a reasonable hour or for providing more recreation programs “Parents should care,” says freshman Briona Turman. “They shouldn’t rely on government to control their child. They need to step in and make sure child comes home.”

Campbell fears that the negative attention toward teens and the focus on what they’re doing wrong will backfire. “If we’re growing up not feeling good, then that’s what we’re going to contribute to society when we get older,” he says.

Despite the back-and-forth, the City College debaters weren’t able to reach a consensus on the curfew. As the afternoon goes on, the debaters take their leave, walking back across the hall to ponder treaties and colonies because, unfortunately, today’s debate ends without a winner—or answers.


About Karen Houppert

I'm a journalist and also Associate Director of the MA in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. I've been writing about menstruation--and a whole lot of other stuff--since the 1990s.

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