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Frightened bus users make stand

Teenagers document violence on Route 23 in hope of spurring action by the MBTA

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By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / March 4, 2008

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Tiara Amarante's bus ride to school is a daily exercise in dodging danger.

On MBTA Bus 23 - which winds past storefront churches, pizza shops, and boarded-up buildings - drug dealers push their wares and passengers fight over money, sometimes with knives. Last March, a teenager was fatally shot on the bus.

Amarante, 15, has learned how to survive the ride. She has no choice; she must ride Bus 23 from her home in Dorchester to the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury where she is a freshman.

She sits close to one of the two exits, so she can get out quickly if a passenger pulls out a gun or knife. When other riders begin to scream or argue, she casts her eyes downward: to stare is to ask for trouble. At night, when she is coming home from her civic issues meeting after school, she waits for the bus at the stops with the brightest street lighting or where police cars usually idle.

Last month, Amarante and nine other teenagers who take Bus 23 to school or to get around their neighborhood decided to do something about it. They would survey other passengers, document their stories, and try to persuade MBTA officials to take action.

"There is a lot of tension on the 23," said Terence Pennington, 15, a sophomore who rides the bus from Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester to the civics meeting he and Amarante attend with the other teenagers in Codman Square.

Three years ago on the bus, he said, he saw a man pull out a knife and threaten to kill another man who owed him $5. The menacing man punched the window and then stormed off the bus, said Pennington. "There is always a possibility something will happen: somebody getting shot, assaulted, or I get hurt somehow."

T officials say statistics indicate that the bus is safe, but the teenagers, who believe that many crimes go unreported, keep their own mental record of the violence they have witnessed.

Last March, Dwayne Graham, 18, was killed on the 23, after someone boarded the bus and shot him in the head. No one has been arrested in the slaying, which happened in the afternoon when children were leaving school.

Amarante was among them, going home on another 23, just behind the bus that carried Graham.

She recalled hearing the bus driver's radio crackle that someone had been shot near Columbia Road and Washington Street. When Amarante's bus arrived, police were still at the scene, directing cars and people away from the bus on Washington Street.

"What really stays in mind is it was broad daylight," she said. "That just blew my mind. . . . Everybody was just so, like, shocked."

After the shooting, T officials placed cameras on 100 city buses, including the 23, said MBTA officials, who plan to install cameras on 240 more buses by the end of the year.

Lieutenant Joseph O'Connor of the Transit Police said he has heard from young people in the community who feel unsafe on the bus. But he said that the 23, which has nearly 13,000 daily riders and is the third-busiest route in the city, is safe.

Crime on MBTA buses fell 39 percent from 2006 to 2007, T officials say. In 2007, three violent events were reported on Bus 23: the killing of Graham; an assault and battery with a dangerous weapon; and a robbery. In 2006, seven serious crimes were reported on the route, including a rape, four robberies, one assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and a larceny.

"Our service does run through many neighborhoods that have been affected by violence," O'Connor said. "When you do look at the number of people who do ride and the number of incidents that occur on the MBTA, your chances of being a victim of crime on that bus are very small."

The teenagers say the chances for violence seem greater when the bus is packed, especially in the late afternoon, when students are coming home from school and adults are getting out of work. As riders jostle for space, tempers sometimes flare, Pennington said.

Usually, the result is a loud argument or a shoving match that quickly ends when the feuding riders arrive at their destination. Other times, the fights escalate, Pennington said.

"You kind of just get used to it," he said. "If the trouble isn't directed toward you, nothing should happen. You just hope you get lucky. When it gets crowded, when kids start yelling at each other on the bus, you kind of just try and stay out the way and hope you don't get punched, hope nothing happens, hope someone doesn't start swinging at you."

Amarante said she cannot get used to the fighting. She and Pennington were riding together on the bus one night when a man sitting near them began screaming into his cellphone.

" 'I'm going to blow your brains out. Give me my money!' " Amarante recalled him yelling. "I was all scared."

Drug dealers are a common sight on the bus, said Jahlil Cyrus, 14, a freshman at the O'Bryant School. He recalled one recent trip when a man tried to sell him marijuana. "I got bud for sale; I got bud for sale," Cyrus recalled the dealer saying. Cyrus said he just shook his head. "Can I ride home in peace?" he recalled thinking.

Along with their worries about violence, Amarante and her friends want to report other problems they say they have noticed: lack of room for baby carriages; drivers who fail to pull up to the curb during stops; and a slow schedule that they believe does not keep up with heavy ridership.

In the basement of a Roxbury community center, they meet three times a week with Ralph Ortiz, a youth program coordinator who helps direct their efforts, organize their plans, and draft survey questions.

"It's good for us to do a project like that, because basically everybody complains about the bus," Amarante said. "And nobody really does anything in the community about it."

O'Connor said he looks forward to meeting with the teenagers. "I am very happy to see that youth in the community have an interest in being part of a solution to issues that are happening," he said. "We hope when these youths are done with their survey that they will report these incidents to us, so we can address whatever issues they do observe."

Ortiz, who works for the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, said he hopes the teenagers will collect enough stories from other passengers to present to T officials.

"It's not enough for the 10 of us to say we feel unsafe," he said.

He might not have to look hard for anecdotes. Veronica Spencer, 52, waited Friday afternoon for the 23 to take her home to Dorchester from Dudley Square.

She said she hopes the teenagers' plan results in a safer ride. But until then, she said she will continue her own survival ritual.

"Pray," she said, as the 23 rolled up. "Pray nothing happens."

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story Tuesday about teenagers and the MBTA bus route they take to school incorrectly stated the number of riders on the route. According to the MBTA, 12,910 people ride the bus on a typical weekday.