Reducing Youth Violence in Syracuse
Stella Adegite

Violence among youth has been and remains a major problem in Syracuse. In 18 of the 25 murders in Syracuse in 2008, the victims, perpetrators or both were under the age of 25, the youngest being a 13 year-old boy charged with murder. The total equaled the previously recorded high in 2002. According to a 2000 study by the US Department of Justice, 18 to 20 year-olds account for 22% of those arrested for homicide. There are significant differences in the rates of violence between countries and regions, but one common strand is that youth are not only the main perpetrators but also the main victims. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 young people ages 10 to 24 are murdered each day in the US.

Cherylene “Twiggy” Billue, Director of American Friends Service Committee’s Youth Empowerment Project, attributes the increasing violence among city youth to the lack of efforts to address the underlying issues. These include poverty and lack of parental involvement.

Corcoran is a Hot Spot
Twiggy was brought in to work with a group of teens at Corcoran High School last summer after 17 year-old Anthony Williams was shot to death while sitting on a front porch. She facilitates a forum, called Teens Against Violence, where students – who have been victims of violence, lost a loved one or otherwise been affected by violence – speak up and speak out against violence. Twiggy reports that of the 25 local murders in 2008, 20 directly or indirectly affected Corcoran students. The violence, however, has not remained outside school walls.

On March 30, 2009 16 year-old Shakayla Rush was arrested and charged with attempting to stab a police officer after a dispute in the school’s lavatory between four girls got out of control. In January, Trenton Sparks was stabbed in the arm after trying to break up an altercation between two of his fellow students.

Working with Teens Against Violence, Twiggy aspires to create a trauma center at Corcoran. She believes the most important thing in combating this senseless violence is for responsible adults to listen.

Students in Teens Against Violence attribute the violence in their school and community to jealousy, lack of supervision, gang relations, drugs, money and misunderstandings. Channon, a 10th grader, believes much of the violence is due to a lack of resources helping students deal with their anger and stress about violence. “No one checks to see if you are okay after losing someone. Then they get mad at you when you lash out.”

Cindy Squillace, a Student Assistance Counselor who offers free counseling to Corcoran students, believes the violence is becoming a systemic problem because of lack of parental and community involvement. “Adults have no idea. Adults are afraid to find out what’s going on. All the resources have been cut. Our community is not putting resources into youth to help our children become productive adults.”

Mothers Against Gun Violence founder Helen Hudson speaks to some 50 people gathered on April 26, 2009 at 191 Corning Ave. to vigil in remembrance of 17 year old Jaquan Everson who died of gunshot wounds. Mothers Against Gun Violence vigils near the site at 5 pm on the Sunday after someone is murdered in Syracuse. Photo: Ann Tiffany
Past Efforts
In 1996 Syracuse launched a community initiative to promote collaboration between community organizations and agencies addressing violence. The Syracuse Partnership to Reduce Juvenile Gun Violence involved more than 70 agencies, community organizations and citizens concerned about the increase in youth gun violence. The Partnership was rooted in a community mobilization strategy that targeted the South, Southwest and West Side neighborhoods of Syracuse. 

Youth between the ages of 13 and 21 living in one of these areas who had previous records of arrests for gun or weapon-related charges were the primary focus. The secondary focus included their siblings, as well as other youth susceptible to street violence. Services of the Partnership were also offered to those who had dropped out of school, were underemployed or unemployed, came from violent homes, had been institutionalized or involved in the use or sale of drugs.

The approach aimed to improve communication with law enforcement. However law enforcement’s role in maintaining the status quo, as well as racial profiling limited progress. Facing a variety of problems, internal and external, the Partnership evolved into the present-day Violence Intervention and Prevention Program (VIPP). This program aims to provide alternatives for youths through job, mentoring and recreational opportunities. However, the level of resources put into the program and its visibility have decreased dramatically.

Looking Elsewhere for Solutions
One successful model in combating inner-city youth violence is Boston’s Comprehensive Strategy: Prevention, Intervention, and Enforcement, implemented in the early 1990s in response to staggering levels of youth violence. The program built coalitions and partnerships among local police, prosecutors, probation officers, corrections officials, social service personnel, school officials, judges, health professionals, parents and youth.

The success of Boston’s initiative derived from the high level of involvement of community organizations and individuals. The church and clergy played an important role, focusing on 14 crime hot spots with nighttime walks, community meetings and prayer vigils. The coalition trained religious leaders and community organizers to approach youth on the street and to design church programming appealing to teenagers. It also organized a crisis response team so that police could call clergy into certain areas in the aftermath of shootings to restore peace.

Early on, Boston experienced a startling decrease in the level of violent crime committed by and among youth. From 1990 to 1995 the number of juvenile homicides dropped by 80%. Between 1993 and 1995, the juvenile violent crime arrest rate for aggravated assault and battery with a firearm decreased by 65%. Violent crime in the public schools fell more than 20% in the 1995-1996 school year. Boston’s success was attributed to the collaboration between the criminal justice system and the community.

Unfortunately, in recent years youth and street violence in Boston has increased. State budget cuts in 2002-2003 undermined their effectiveness. Teens are becoming increasingly at risk of street violence and substance abuse due to lack of funding for jobs, after-school programs, drop-out prevention, substance abuse prevention, peer leadership, peacemaking and conflict resolution and street outreach workers.

Back Home    
Based on the Boston model, the Ten Point Plan to End Juvenile Gun Violence was initiated in Syracuse in 2002 through the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA), a non-profit, faith-based ecumenical association. The initiative provided programs and services focused on the South and Southwest neighborhoods. Like the Boston model, the IMA initiative involved faith and community leaders, residents, organizations and an extensive collaboration with the Police Chief, Mayor’s Office and Superintendent of Schools.

IMA President Rev. Kenneth Reed notes, “the program was a coalition of concerned and willing Syracuse citizens to change the circumstances of youth in violent environments.”

While initially there was significant energy for the effort, it didn’t last and there were never enough resources available. Today, the lone remaining program is the Faith Hope Community Center’s boxing program established to help youth find less destructive outlets for their anger. It continues to face funding challenges.

Future Directions
In recent national trends juvenile violent crime is increasing most quickly among10 to 12 year-olds. Demographers speculate that if juvenile crime rates continue to increase with expected youth population increases, juvenile-committed violent crimes will increase by nearly 15% by next year. As the problem of juvenile violence has grown, so has our understanding of the problem and possible solutions.

At-risk youth, if reached early enough, can be assisted to make better choices. The challenge facing many communities is to take what is known about youth violence and apply it to at-risk youth before they take their first step into crime. 

The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) has received national acclaim for its holistic approach of education, social services and community building programs aimed at helping children and families. Recognizing that the root cause of many inner-city problems, including violence, is poverty and its multiple effects on children, this program has achieved impressive results. Led by visionary activist Geoffrey Canada, HCZ’s “whatever it takes” attitude and aggressive practical solutions now serve a 100 block area with more than 10,000 children.

HCZ’s projects include: the Baby College (a nine-week parenting workshop for expectant parents and those raising a child up to three years old); the Harlem Gems (an all-day pre-kindergarten program); the HCZ Asthma Initiative, which teaches families to better manage the disease; the Promise Academy, a high-quality public charter school; and an obesity program to help children stay healthy.

In 2007- 2008 HCZ reported 100% of students in the pre-K program were found to be school-ready for the sixth consecutive year. In 2008 the NYC Department of Education rated the Promise Academy in the 99th percentile of all K-8 schools city-wide.

Efforts are also underway to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in Florida. The Florida legislature has funded a pilot project in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami and a zone in Jacksonville. 

Say Yes to Education offers the prospect of free college tuition to students who graduate from the Syracuse City School District. The goal is to promote lifelong success by providing a hopeful future for young people who currently see little reason to stay in school and succeed.

The recently created Trauma Response Team is Syracuse’s latest response to rising youth violence. The team, made up of clergy, members of Mothers Against Gun Violence and others, provides immediate emotional and spiritual support at the scenes of violence to aid family and friends of the victims in hopes of breaking the cycle of violence.

Director of the Syracuse/Onondaga County Human Rights Commission and former Partnership to Reduce Juvenile Gun Violence Coordinator Julius Edwards hopes that the addition of mental health treatment will make a difference, “we were responding to the trauma, but we were not treating the trauma.”

While such reactive responses are necessary, they don’t get to the heart of the issue. The IMA’s Reed notes, “it is important to deal with the traumatic effects of violence, but the community should not fail to engage the roots causes of such violence.”

Stella, who interned at SPC in the spring, recently graduated from SU (with many honors) and is on her way to law school at Howard University