How to keep communities safe? Efforts to curb violence start with youth

When 20 children were killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the country was in horror. Then Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner wanted to do something to protect the people in Hillsborough. As a result, Safe and Sound Hillsborough, the Hillsborough County Community Violence Prevention Collaborative, was born.

The underlying premise was that violence wasn’t a law enforcement issue. 

“Community violence is a health epidemic,” Beckner says. “Relying on law enforcement was not the answer.”

Today Safe and Sound is continuing its work, planning its inaugural Violence Prevention Conference, Safe Summit ’17. In this 83 Degrees Media article, we look at Safe and Sound and ongoing community efforts to defeat violence in the Tampa area.

Violence: an old problem

Violence isn’t a new problem. Defeating it is a “gargantuan task,” asserts Freddy Barton, Safe and Sound’s Executive Director.

“We’ve been trying to stop violence since Cain killed Able,” he quips, referring to the biblical story. “It didn’t start overnight. It’s not going to stop overnight.”

Safe and Sound took on the challenge, however, and is focusing its efforts on youth. 

“If you can get them in their youth, late teens, early 20s, you’re having a real impact,” says Stephen Hegarty, Public Information Officer for the Tampa Police Department, one of the original participants in Safe and Sound. “We believe that’s a very smart approach.”

The crime rate is down

Overall crime dropped 24 percent in Tampa between 2011 and 2016. Violent crime dipped 16.5 percent while property crime dipped 6.8 percent, according to city figures.

“It’s hard to say exactly what is causing things to go in the right direction in the city of Tampa,” Hegarty admits. “There’s a lot of other things that are going on. Part of the picture is the efforts of Safe and Sound. It reaches out to the community in ways that we [as a Police Department] are not.”

Juvenile arrests for violent crime dropped in Hillsborough County from 692 to 646 from 2014 to 2016, according to Sheriff’s Office figures.

Barton says the way to stop violence is to treat it as a disease. He believes the community must focus on prevention and the factors that contribute to violence.

“When kids don’t have something to do, they find something to do,” Barton asserts.

The process begins with letting youths know they have value. “If we drive that home ... we can have a positive effect on the lives of these kids -- and we will see a long-term reduction in violence in this community,” Barton says.

Safe and Sound addresses bias through community conversations that bring together law officers, youths and other residents who talk about stereotypes. Through mock trials, they teach youths they can go to jail if they know a companion is carrying a gun -- and he or she later uses it to kill someone.

Safe and Sound is focusing its efforts on four communities so it won’t stretch its resources “too thin,” he says. The communities are East Tampa, Plant City in East Hillsborough, the University area of north Tampa and Wimauma in South Hillsborough.

These areas represent a sort of microcosm of the diverse communities in Hillsborough. “The hope is, that by having an impact in these zip codes, it might be achievable in different kinds of community and neighborhoods,” Hegarty explains.

Children’s Board has a broad reach

Safe and Sound brings a lot of community stakeholders to the table. One of those is the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, which funds about 53 lead agencies annually with nearly $36.4 million.

“A good education and the ability for children to self-regulate would go a long way to ending violence in our communities,” says Kelley Parris, Executive Director. “Eighty-five percent of the children entering the juvenile justice system have functionally low literacy rates.”

Its Fiscal Year Outcomes Report shows more than 545,000 received assistance between the fiscal years 2014 and 2016, some 16,767 households in the 2016 fiscal year.
She believes summer programs are an important part of encouraging positive lifestyles. “The key is to offer high quality after school and summer programming for children to keep them engaged in positive activities that stimulate their minds and build on those social/emotional skills that are invaluable tools for a lifetime,” she says.

Computer Mentors: Keeping kids engaged

One program supported by the Children’s Board is Computer Mentors, which operates on an annual budget of $500,000 with support from the Children’s Board and corporate sponsors like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Suncoast Federal Credit Union and Citibank.

“We started in the Ybor City branch of the Hillsborough County Library in 1997,” says Director Ralph Smith. “Me and five kids. It just kind of grew.”

The East Tampa-based nonprofit will celebrate its 20-year anniversary August 3. It has served an estimated 1,500 in Smith's high school program and some 700 in the middle school program.

The library system is one of its largest partners, and programs are offered there throughout the county to all youths. “We do have a majority of our students that can be categorized as low-income, at-risk,” he says, “but we do not restrict.”

He keeps the youth engaged by offering them the computers they work on if they stay with him through the year.

The idea for the program came in the 1970s, when Smith was programming computers at a Michigan Bank. He’d come across some youths who were in the juvenile justice system and thought, “Maybe if I could train them ... maybe we could keep them out of trouble.”

Although he wasn't able to act on the idea for many years, he didn’t forget it. The group became a reality when a sponsor provided funds. 

At the heart of the program is a desire to boost the children’s sense of self esteem. He does that by teaching a skill, so they know they are good at something and can focus on the positive rather than the negative.

“All of our kids, as they go through the program, are going to know that they are good at computers,” Smith explains. “Hopefully they can resist some of the other temptations.”

Through Computer Mentors, high school students can earn college credits for free. They earn individual standard certifications like Microsoft Word. Excel and Powerpoint that count for college credit.

“Not only does it make them aware that they are college material, but it will save them money when they actually enroll,” Smith adds.

Moving forward with private sector

Now that Beckner is off the Board of County Commissioners, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller Jr. represents the county on the Safe and Sound board. “I will do whatever I can as far as the commission goes,” says Miller, whose district includes East Tampa and the University area.

As the Safe Summit ’17 on June 3 at University Mall approaches, Beckner is working with members of the business community. 

“We’ve made some progress. Our mission is not yet accomplished. We have a lot more work to do, not only Safe and Sound, but the entire community,” he says. “I will continue contributing,” he says.

Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. 
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