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Community leaders launch long-term violence prevention plan in Hillsborough

Theda James, the misdemeanor/juvenile bureau chief for the Public Defenders Office in Hillsborough County, looks over maps with details of crimes, poverty and child abuse in the county.
Theda James, the misdemeanor/juvenile bureau chief for the Public Defenders Office in Hillsborough County, looks over maps with details of crimes, poverty and child abuse in the county.
Published Aug. 26, 2014

TAMPA — While most high school students feel comfortable in Hillsborough County public schools, many feel less secure when they head toward home. And, according a survey released Monday, neighborhoods are doing too little to fix that.

More often than not, adults don't object if kids skip school and hang around on street corners. Gang activity is a growing problem, most of the high school students surveyed reported.

Many said they started using marijuana at 8 or younger. Nearly one in five said they had improperly used prescription drugs more than 40 times in their life.

These findings, based on responses from nearly 2,000 teens in the ninth and 12th grade age range throughout Hillsborough County, are among the building blocks of an ambitious plan to address social and mental health issues instead of waiting for those problems to erupt. Taken as a whole, the responses in this unusual survey help paint a picture of the hurdles to overcome in making communities less violent.

"It is a failure on everyone's part when citizens become a part of the criminal justice system," Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said Monday, as Hillsborough's Violence Prevention Collaborative unveiled the study.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who chairs the collaborative, said that while crime is decreasing in Hillsborough County, it is still prevalent and needs to be addressed at its root causes.

"We can't arrest our way out of this problem," he said.

The collaborative, launched in the aftermath of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, involves law enforcement agencies, city and county governments, the State Attorney's Office, the Hillsborough County School Board and the University of South Florida.

Still in its early stages, the five-year project will look at everything from mental health treatment to community building. Its models include Oakland, Calif., where a city-county initiative lowered violent crime in the Sobrante Park neighborhood; and Baltimore, where the public health-based Cure Violence model is credited for lowering shootings, killings and retaliation murders.

"Violence has so fully saturated our lives that it occurs in our homes, schools, churches, workplaces, shopping centers and transportation systems," says a report issued by the collaborative.

The group is hiring a coordinator and seeking $1.7 million in county funding. Its goals are far-reaching: Leaders hope to ensure children have nurturing families and communities. They want to combat substance abuse. The report calls for stronger relationships between schools and community organizations to meet children's after-school needs, more teen jobs and teacher training to cut off inappropriate comments and foster nonviolence.

As part of its early work, the collaborative plotted crime statistics on color-coded maps. In various combinations, they showed in red and orange the areas most prone to domestic violence, child abuse, poverty and truancy. In many but not all cases, they were concentrated in East and Central Tampa.

Researchers also solicited survey responses from 3,500 teens of high school age in April. A small number surveyed were in adult education and court programs. But most were students in the district's 27 traditional high schools. About 57 percent responded, or just under 2,000.

Of those who responded, nearly all — 98 percent — expressed a sense of belonging in their schools.

"That's what we call a protective factor," said Martha Coulter, a professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health. "It positions the schools to be a central part of implementing preventive programs and suggests that programs that build on, or are based in the schools, are likely to be trusted by the teens."

The student responses, however, suggest neighborhoods do not currently offer much support.

Nearly half said their communities do not meet and work on solving problems together. About 40 percent said neighbors don't watch over one another's property.

Fewer than half believe their neighbors would do something about children skipping school or hanging out. More than half believe gangs are a serious problem — one that's worsening. Sixty-five percent felt public drinking is a problem.

Many admitted themselves to drinking, smoking marijuana and taking prescription drugs without prescriptions. More than 500 said they tried marijuana at age 8 or younger. Nearly 300 said they were that young when they had their first drink. Nearly all said they had improperly used prescription drugs at least once.

The authors cautioned that the results were limited because the sample included only traditional high school students taking sociology or psychology electives.

But they said the problems might be understated because the responses were based on students' memories, and what they were willing to disclose.

They also made it clear that solutions require collaboration.

"Rather than react to events after they occur, we must turn our sights to the business of preventing violence before injury or death happen in the first place," the report said. "No single organization can be expected to solve a social problem of this magnitude. No single entity can succeed in isolation."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or