There is no ready prescription to safeguard youth from violence and substance abuse. But a recent survey of teens in Hillsborough County shows what the public has long known: Schools cannot do it alone. Neighborhoods and community members of all socioeconomic backgrounds must step up and nurture youth, letting them know that adults care, are willing to stand up for them if they are violated, and will take them to task if they cross the line. These elements are essential to rebuilding communities in which youth often feel disconnected from their neighbors and lean heavily toward prescription drug and alcohol abuse, all triggers for violent behavior. Adult involvement matters, and the entire community must find ways to become engaged.
Nearly 2,000 Hillsborough County teens participated in the survey released earlier this week that was designed to assess their risk for violent behavior and their resilience to factors that might negatively influence them. The teens represented the district's 27 traditional high schools or were enrolled in adult education classes or participating in a court program. Those surveyed sounded off on everything from the presence of gangs in their neighborhoods — 100 percent of respondents said gangs existed in their communities — to safety, where more than 60 percent of students said they would go outside more if their neighborhood were safer. School safety provided one of the brightest spots in the survey, with 98 percent of teens saying they felt they belonged at their school.
The survey was commissioned by the Hillsborough County Violence Prevention Collaborative, a diverse group of politicians, lawyers and law enforcement officials that formed in 2013 following the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. The collaborative aims to prevent violence from occurring in Hillsborough, and in a report released Monday the group suggested ways to combat violence. Their suggestions included strengthening families and communities by providing support in areas related to mental health, substance abuse and jobs. The group also wants to engage the broader community and to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods plagued by violence.
It is easy to view these kinds of findings as evidence of someone else's problems, with lofty goals that have little possibility of becoming reality. But if the community is to improve, all stakeholders, whether they have children or not, need to pitch in. The geographic diversity of teens polled in the survey showed that the issues this generation faces are not limited to a few problematic ZIP codes. Their concerns are widespread, and no neighborhood is exempt.
The collaborative's inaugural report contained good ideas and useful data. Its members should keep going and connect their vision with successful programs that are already operating in communities around the country. These are proactive steps that the entire community should encourage and support.