An ambitious plan to stop violence, one kid at a time

Published Aug. 29, 2014

You could see the news unveiled this week out of Hillsborough County schools as either alarming or encouraging — take your pick.

The positive: Of nearly 2,000 public high school students who responded to a survey, 98 percent expressed a sense of belonging in their schools. Call me cynical, but given that we're talking teenagers in ninth to 12th grade, I would expect a number way more, well, cynical.

Also, 91 percent of them said they felt safe at school — also good news.

But more sobering is this: Only 88 percent said they felt safe at home. Many cited gang activity as a problem in their neighborhoods. And said it's only getting worse.

So what do you do with this kind of revealing glimpse into the sort of problems that can turn kids into victims or criminal defendants, the kind of trouble that contributes to everyday violence where we live?

Maybe you use it to try to change the world.

No question, the plan is beyond ambitious: A widespread group created in the aftermath of the horrific school shootings in Newtown, Conn., aims to address violence at its root before trouble erupts.

As Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, chair of the Violence Prevention Collaborative, put it this week: "We can't arrest our way out of this problem."

By now we know that does not work.

"Anything we can do to keep young kids from becoming our customers is a good thing, in my view," Tampa police Chief Jane Castor told me this week.

"It's not lost on any of us that the people we put in jail, now their kids' names are coming up," she said. "Anything we can do to break that cycle."

Using programs from other towns credited with reducing violent crime, Hillsborough's five-year plan is for a comprehensive approach to core problems. It involves law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, community and church leaders, medical people and educators. It will explore social and mental health issues, and more.

Did I mention it's ambitious?

"A bigger picture," Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia says.

"Everybody in the room at the same time," Castor says.

More sobering statistics for them to deal with: About one-quarter of the kids surveyed said they tried marijuana at the age of 8 or even younger. (I find that number a stunner.) And nearly all said they had used prescription drugs without a prescription — some of them many times.

Admittedly, the lofty goals of this collaborative seem like standing at the bottom of a skyscraper and figuring your odds of pole-vaulting over.

The trick will be not losing sight of its purpose — stopping violence before it starts by getting to its causes — to warring interests and funding squabbles, particularly with so many voices in the mix.

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We've seen it before — well-meant, important, even noble ideas drowned in bureaucracy and the mantra of "We can't do this because it's not how it's always been done."

But this could work. In deliberate, organized steps that take on problems school by school, neighborhood by neighborhood, kid by kid, it could make a difference.

Armed with a reality that's alarming, encouraging or both, it could at least be a start.