lot has been said about protecting youth in the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy. In response to a blog I’d written this week critical of expanding school police, a reader commented, “If it saves one life, it’s worth it.” This seems to be a common theme in the media and public discourse over the past month. This made me wonder: if all lives are worth saving, why, even while youth violence is falling, did we still have almost 1,700 youth killed by homicide in 2010? And are we really doing the right things now — or in the President’s proposal — to save as many young lives as possible?
A look at the data would suggest no. According to the Indicators of School Crime, less than two percent of youth homicides occur in school. In terms of school-associated violent deaths, the report states that for all youth ages 5-17, there was about one violent death (by homicide or suicide) at school for every 2.7 million students. So focusing on schools is unlikely to reduce youth homicides overall by much. In terms of age groups, the President said he wanted to give “parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade.” While public data doesn’t break out school homicides by age, In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control reported that there were 141 elementary school-aged (5-11) children who died from homicide total. Nationwide less than one child in 200,000 in this age range was a victim of homicide. While of course any child’s violent death is deplorable, it’s clearly not those in school or those the age of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary that comprised most of the 1,683 youth homicides that occurred in 2010.
So where should we look to have the biggest impact on reducing youth homicides? The CDC data is clear: if we want to have a significant impact on youth homicide, we need to look at what we’re doing that impacts older African American boys off school grounds. For all 12-17 year olds in the U.S., there were 846 homicides in 2010 – 3.34 per 100,000 population. White boys in this age group experienced homicides at a rate of 2.51 per 100,000, while the rate for African American boys, who made up over half of these victims, was seven times that: 19.83 per 100,000. Most stark is the figure for 17-year-old African American boys, who are victims of homicide at a rate of 52.74 per 100,000.
The President’s proposals yesterday only scratches the surface of how to address those most affected by youth violence. About half of youth homicides were caused by firearms, and while JPI doesn’t research gun control, it may be that some of the measures related to regulating firearms may help reduce this number. However, we must address the underlying factors that are causing so many African American boys to die violently. And on this, the Administration offers a few positive recommendations around improving school environment and access to mental health treatment, but falls far short of a comprehensive approach.
Thankfully, Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia has been giving the issue of reducing youth violence serious thought for years. His “Youth PROMISE Act,” which he has re-introduced this session, would fund coordinated prevention and intervention programs for youth in those communities most impacted by violence. While maybe not as politically popular as putting more police in schools, Representative Scott’s proposal would be far more likely to substantially reduce the number of youth – particularly from communities of color – that are dying violently each year. And it would cost far less than the law-enforcement heavy approach outlined by the Administration.
No youth should face violent deaths, and it’s up to us adults to make the hard policy choices that can save as many futures as possible. Hopefully, the President will look beyond Sandy Hook to the needs of older youth in his old hometown of Chicago and elsewhere, and throw his support behind initiatives like Youth PROMISE Act which might make a real dent in the number of young lives lost to violence.
Read JPI’s report: Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools.