Serenity now: Monks will help police combat teen violence

Lowell [Massachusetts]: A shaven-headed Buddhist monk in a saffron robe, the Venerable Sao Khon seems an unlikely crimefighter. But he might be one answer to violence on this city’s streets.

Police are planning to refer Southeast Asian youngsters who have run away from home to the Cambodian-born monk and his brethren to provide moral and religious guidance. Police hope to catch youngsters at a crucial point and keep their lives on track.

“They need to understand the difference between good and bad and they may not understand that,” the 68-year-old Khon said through a translator. “The kids need to talk about their problems to the monks and then the monks will show them which way is bad and which way is good.”

It is not the first time that law enforcement has turned to religious leaders for help with youth crime. Ministers were enlisted, for example, in the battle against violence in Boston’s black community in the 1990s, a program that has become a national model.

But the program is unusual in the Cambodian community in the United States. Khon, president of an association of 80 Cambodian Buddhist temples nationwide, said that he had not heard of a similar venture elsewhere.

Lowell, 30 miles north of Boston, is a former mill city with a population of about 105,000. Nearly one-fifth of the residents are of Asian descent, many of them Cambodians who arrived in the 1980s.

The Southeast Asian influence is obvious in the city’s Highlands section. Stores have signs in both English and Khmer. A playground is filled with Khmer shouts as dozens of young men play volleyball.

Straddling his bike, Kevin Yaing, 12, said he would be open to talking to a monk. “They know a lot,” he said. He also offered — quietly — that he wanted to become a monk himself, “but I know it’s a long process.”

But Vannara Nhar, 13, sat on a stoop with one hand in a bag of Cheetos and the other clutching a Kool-Aid, and said: “I think if they, like, talk to us, it would be boring. We’ll talk, but it would be boring.”

Police Capt. Bob DeMoura, who commands a precinct in the Highlands section, said he was concerned about a rising tide of violence related to Southeast Asian gang rivalries. Two weeks ago, for example, a dispute between two gangs resulted in a stabbing, followed the next day by a retaliatory shooting, he said.

The usual police tactics have not seemed to work, prompting the veteran cop to seek alternatives.

The program will focus initially on first-time runaways.

“I look at this as early intervention,” DeMoura said.

The counseling might eventually be offered to truants or as an alternative sentence for minor crimes, such as disorderly conduct.

Denise C. Lewis, a researcher at the University of Kentucky who has studied Cambodian immigrants, said that in the rural community she examined, it was not uncommon for Cambodian families to take their children, without police involvement, to a monk when they had problems.

Even in America, “there is a lot of respect, even among youth, for the Buddhist monk,” Lewis said.

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