Monday, May 24, 2010

Verdict in Newark Schoolyard Murders

The first of six defendants was convicted today in the murder of three young adults in Newark, New Jersey three years ago and the attempted murder of a fourth.  The dead, Iofemi Hightower, 20; Terrance Aeriel, 18; and Dashon Harvey, 20; and the survivor, Natasha Aeriel, 19, were all students or soon-to-be-students at Delaware State University, were hanging out on a Newark school playground when they were attacked with guns and machetes.  At least one of the female victims was sexually assaulted.

These murders are widely referred to as the "Newark Schoolyard Murders."  They got a fair amount of attention when they happened, and the Associated Press says they
jolted New Jersey's largest city into trying to fix its crime problem.
I find this an interesting phenomenon.  Clearly this is not the only homicide Newark has ever seen.  There were 106 homicides in Newark the year that these killings took place.  What made these stand out?

While there is plenty that is fairly typical about these murders, they also have particular aspects that propel them to the top of the front page.  First of all, while people in Newark might have come to expect homicides by the time these occurred in August of 2007, there were some caveats.  Generally speaking, there was one victim at a time, killed by one or two perpetrators.  There was gang violence, but it usually killed other gang members.  The number of murders involving unknown assailants and random violence was still a tiny percentage.  In this instance, the murders happened in a low crime part of town, relatively speaking, and the victims were college students, not gang bangers.  The motive appears to have been initiating a new gang member, with robbery as an afterthought.  In short, these murders violated all of the basic worldviews that allow people to think of violence as something that happens to other people.  If these kids could be killed, anyone could.

I think that the factor that most tipped the scales in favor of massive publicity, however, was that the killings took place in a schoolyard.  When you read the term "schoolyard murders," your first thought is probably about school children being killed, perhaps by other students.  We as a society are obsessed with school violence despite lots of evidence that school is one of the safest places for children in this country.  Sending our kids to school takes a leap of faith, because we as parents can't watch over them, so murders in schools are a big deal.  In this instance, even though it was nighttime, summer, and neither the victims nor the killers were students at the school, the simple use of the term "schoolyard murders" triggers a visceral response, and we want to learn more.

Certainly these young people did not deserve to die like this.  No one does.  And to the extent that this event was a catalyst for change, that's all to the good.  It's important to remember, though, that 103 other people were murdered in Newark that year.  Not all of them were minding their own business, not all were college students, not all happened to have been killed on a school playground.  All 106 murder victims were human beings who had people who cared about them.  As the coverage of this and the remaining trials hits the news, let's take a moment to remember them, too.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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