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Schools, community and parents have vital roles in stopping youth violence

Please, don't let it be a kid, I thought as I drove downtown the day of the manhunt, helicopters buzzing above and the I-275 traffic control signs warning of "police activity" near Tropicana Field. Another fine police officer had been gunned down. Please don't let it be a kid.

But it was.

Nicholas Lindsey, accused of killing Officer David S. Crawford, stared at me from the front page the next morning. Just two years ago, he was in my courtroom charged with a misdemeanor trespass. He completed a juvenile arbitration program, and I never saw him again.

As a juvenile judge presiding over youths raised in the very areas where the three police officers were recently murdered, I have witnessed the tragic results of commingling kids and guns: Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, age 8, slain in her own home during a nighttime gun battle between rival gangs; a youth from my court admitted to providing the weapons. Fifteen-year-old Deandre Brown, nicknamed "Squirrel," killed in a drive-by shooting outside his home as part of a similar gangland feud; an 18-year-old, Tyree Gland, was arrested. And countless more kids have been prosecuted for possession of guns, assaults with guns, carrying guns to the school bus stop, fortunately without injuries.

Adele Solazzo, a child psychologist who works in juvenile court, says that when a certain percentage of people behave in a manner that might be considered abnormal, it becomes "the norm." I do believe that owning or having easy access to guns has become "the norm" for young black males in southern St. Petersburg.

While my heart goes out to the families and colleagues of these slain public servants, I think every day about what we can do regarding the horrific problem of youth violence — both perpetrators and victims? I believe that some solutions lie with the school system, the southern St. Petersburg community itself, and more concerned parents.

Pinellas school board member Robin Wikle told me that the board has been visiting career and technical high schools, one in Manatee and four in Hillsborough County. In these academies, students earn certificates in engineering and culinary skills, auto mechanics, or fine arts. They are alternatives to academic programs that somehow don't "engage" kids.

Engagement is the key. If we can keep the youths attached to school, no matter what the curriculum, sport or activity, we can prevent the chronic truancy/dropout problem. Success in school is the best alternative to the lure of gangs and guns. I hope the school board seriously considers establishing a career academy.

The community itself needs to take ownership of the problem and admit that easy access to guns can lead to tragedy. If you own a gun, lock it away out of sight and never tell your children you own it. Search your teenager's room for guns.

Finally, parents need to be more concerned about the danger of chronic truancy. Nicholas Lindsey had a very minor juvenile record, but in the last few months he had missed more school than he attended. This is a very big warning sign of trouble.

Parents of chronic truants need to do more than just nag their child to go to school. They can check attendance each day online with the PCS Portal; or call the attendance specialist. They can cancel cell phones, disconnect TVs and computers, and hide the video games until attendance improves. If all else fails, they can seek help through Family Resources or the Sheriff's Youth Ranch.

A teenager not attending school has too much time on his hands. Time to join a gang. Time to buy a gun. Now it's our turn to respond, not only with prosecution of the horrific crime, but also with the resolve to prevent future crimes with investments in policies and programs that work.

Irene Sullivan recently retired as circuit judge in the Unified Family Court. She is author of Raised by the Courts: One Judge's Insight into Juvenile Justice.

Schools, community and parents have vital roles in stopping youth violence 03/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 5:10pm]
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