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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Hillsborough aims to prevent neighborhood violence

— Many Hillsborough County students feel unsafe in their homes and neighborhoods because of the potential for violence, according to a survey released Monday. Those same students see their schools as a place of safety where they feel at home.

The survey results were included in a strategic plan created by the county’s Violence Prevention Collaborative, a group with more than 80 members from law enforcement and the judicial, school and political systems.

A year in the making, the plan calls for a broad-based approach to preventing violence through services that will strengthen families and build cohesiveness in tough neighborhoods. The schools, with their connections to parents and children, would provide a safe haven for meetings and social activities, according to the plan.

County Commissioner Kevin Beckner created the Violence Prevention Collaborative in the wake of the December 2013 school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Beckner said the shootings compelled him to look at violence from a public health perspective focused on prevention instead of law enforcement.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” he said at the Monday news conference.

The 67-page strategic plan is loaded with data on domestic violence, gang activity, child abuse and other risk factors. The data was reflected in colored maps that Beckner used for a backdrop as he and other collaborative members spoke to reporters about the need for a communal effort to curb a stubborn problem.

The maps, with data broken down into Zip code areas, were colored red, orange, yellow, light and dark green. The red areas are “hot spots” for poverty, truancy, violence, child abuse and other risk factors for violence.

“These maps pinpoint areas where efforts should be focused in the next phase of the collaboration’s work,” Beckner said.

Asked what message residents who live in the red areas should take away from the violence collaborative plans, Beckner didn’t hesitate.

“They need to realize we know they are there and that help is the way,” he said.

The help won’t be cheap. Beckner said he expects the violence prevention strategy to cost about $1.8 million over five years. The money will be used for integrated services to support families and youth at risk.

Other programs recommended by the plan involve community building efforts, such as connecting different generations in communal projects and cultural events, linking youths with positive peer groups and sponsoring social activities in areas with the highest concentration of social welfare case loads and community violence.

The plan also envisions engaging businesses in economic rehabilitation of neighborhoods and providing living-wage jobs for community residents.

Another emphasis in the plan is aiding in the re-entry of ex-felons into their former neighborhoods. The report recommends building connections between communities and prisoners still in detention, providing incentives to businesses that hire former prisoners, providing substance abuse, mental health and other services so ex-felons don’t drift back into criminality.

“When we gainfully employ mothers and fathers we can reduce recidivism,” said Robert Blount, president of Abe Brown Ministries, a non-profit that works with prisoners returning to society. “The need for re-entry services is glaring.”

Beckner said there are plenty of examples of communities that have been able to dial back violence through comprehensive plans with buy-in from public agencies. The Prevention Institute, a California agency that worked with the Hillsborough Violence Prevention Collaborative to develop its plan, has helped 21 other cities and counties across the nation with efforts to curb violence.

One of those cities, Minneapolis, reduced violent crime by 40 percent after adopting a “Blue Print for Action,” Beckner said.

A key part of the research that informed the plan’s recommendations was the 3,500 surveys distributed to youths in grades 9-12 or ages 14-19. About 2,000 surveys were returned.

Most of those surveyed were public school students, but respondents also included adult education students and youth in juvenile diversion programs or otherwise involved in the juvenile justice system.

About 46 percent of the respondents indicated their community does not meet and work on solving problems and 40 percent said people in their neighborhoods do not ask each other for advice or watch over their neighbors’ property.

Although all the youth in the survey are under the legal drinking age, 52 percent reported drinking alcohol for 40 days or more in their lifetime and 25 percent said they’d tried marijuana at least once.

Beckner said the collaborative’s spending plan will be presented to county commissioners at their Sept. 4 meeting. The county’s share of the cost will be about $1.2 million spread out over five years, or about $230,000 annually plus 4 percent for inflation. Beckner said he’s been working with County Administrator Mike Merrill and Tom Fesler, county business and support services director, on identifying sources for the funding.

Other agencies will contribute money or in-kind services, he said.

“All the partners at the table are contributing financial services,” Beckner said. “Everybody has skin in the game.”

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