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For nine years, residents at Parkside Houses, a public housing development in the Bronx, have held a summer fair with dancing, a parade and barbecue. But this year, the festivities took a more serious tone, as former juvenile offenders from Friends of the Island Academy spoke to residents about keeping local children out of prison.

“Our focus is always on families working together for a better community,” said Monica Berry, president of the Parkside Resident Council, which represents 879 units operated by the New York City Housing Authority. “This year I decided to add information on the juvenile justice system for families in crisis.”

Since 2001, the Bronx has had more incarcerated teens than any other borough (1,077 out of 3,663 citywide in 2004), according to New York City’s Department of Juvenile Justice. So Berry invited youth leaders from Friends of Island Academy, a citywide nonprofit that guides young ex-offenders into higher education, job placement and counseling, to speak at the fair along with police officers from the 49th Precinct, representatives from Bronx Connect, a faith-based alternatives-to-prison program, and a staff attorney from the Legal Aid Society of New York.

“Kids need to think about what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with,” Legal Aid’s Monica Dula told the crowd. “Consider the consequences,” she warned, reminding her teen listeners that carrying knives of any kind was illegal, and suggesting they get to know their neighborhood police officers.

Dula was followed by Ishmel Hargrove, a youth leader from Friends of Island Academy, who spoke about his own experience being incarcerated at 15. Hargrove, 21, now hopes to pass his GED so he can attend college and start another nonprofit like Friends of Island Academy.

“I am trying to teach children to avoid going in, to stay constructive, allow yourself to be talented, stay away from the crooked crazies who will lower you,” said Hargrove. “If I could talk to myself at 14, I would say, I don’t need these clothes, I don’t need to assault this dude.”

While their children bounced in the Jumping Jungle blow-up castle or danced to hip hop blasted by a HOT 97 DJ, their parents and grandparents consulted with the youth leaders and police officers.

“At the precinct, we try to train kids about what police officers do,” said Officer Samuel Perez. “It’s the same for everybody. The kids shouldn’t feel like they are treated differently because they live in the housing projects.”

Rachel Breitman

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