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Cabinet Heads Kick Off Coordinated Effort To Curb Youth Violence

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WASHINGTON--Three Cabinet secretaries and the nation's drug czar took the stage here last month to demonstrate the Clinton Administration's resolve to rein in the distressing encroachment of violence in the lives of children and teenagers.

Symbolizing the Administration's concern, Attorney General Janet Reno--at times sounding more like a child advocate than the nation's top cop--made not one but two appearances at the invitation-only conference, held on July 20 and 21.

Officials said the event was designed to cast light on the "spreading epidemic of violence'' among young people, as Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin put it, and to kick off an effort to coordinate the violence-prevention work of federal agencies with each other as well as with local agencies. It was sponsored by the federal departments of Education, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development as well as the National School Safety Center.

The conference, titled "Safeguarding Our Youth: Violence Prevention for Our Nation's Children,'' drew about 300 social-service providers and young people, who learned about effective programs and got the chance to bend the ears of federal officials.

"No individual, no individual organization, no individual school, certainly no individual local, state, or federal agency can solve this problem alone,'' Ms. Kunin told the gathering.

"Only a reinvigorated sense of community'' can help, she said.

According to the Justice Department, an average of 960,000 children between the ages of 12 and 19 were the victims of 1.9 million violent crimes each year between 1985 and 1988.

During the conference, Ms. Reno, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, and Lee Brown, the national drug-control policy director, took part in a "town meeting'' conducted at sites across the country via a satellite connection. Their joint appearance "gives you a sense of the breadth of the approach that we're taking dealing with the violence issue,'' Ms. Shalala told the audience.

In an interview, Ms. Kunin said, "The federal-local partnership is not a new idea, but I think we've given it a new dynamism.''

"This is going to be an ongoing process,'' she said of the plan to coordinate government agencies' responses to youth violence, adding that it would "become concrete in terms of waivers, in terms of joint action we will take.''

Deputy Attorney General Philip B. Heymann, who hosted the conference along with Ms. Kunin, told the conferees that the White House office of domestic policy is forming a task force on youth violence and last month invited top officials from H.H.S., HUD, and the Education and Labor departments to participate. No further details could be obtained.

Magnitude of Problem

Ms. Shalala labeled the spread of youth violence "a major public-health crisis.''

Between 1987 and 1991, the number of arrests of juveniles for violent crimes increased by 50 percent--twice as big an increase as for those ages 18 and older.

Arrests of juveniles for murder in those five years jumped by 85 percent, while those of adults increased by 21 percent.

About three million thefts and violent crimes occur on or near school campuses every year, or about 16,000 incidents per school day, Mr. Riley told the group.

At several points during the conference, Mr. Riley touted the Administration's proposed "safe-schools act,'' which would provide $175 million over two years to help schools in low-income, high-crime areas. (See Education Week, June 23, 1993.)

As the conference was getting under way, the Joyce Foundation in Chicago released a survey conducted by the pollster Louis Harris that found 11 percent of schoolchildren said t
As the conference was getting under way, the Joyce Foundation in Chicago released a survey conducted by the pollster Louis Harris that found 11 percent of schoolchildren said they had been shot at in the past year. Nine percent said they had shot at someone, and one in 25 said they had taken a handgun to school. (See story, page 21.)

Creative Solutions Needed

Officials said interagency cooperation and other creative solutionsare all the more necessary given the uncertain economic outlook.

"This is a time of limited dollars,'' Ms. Reno told conferees. "We are clearly going to have to do more with less.''

Mr. Riley, meanwhile, urged in a speech that all levels of government make school safety a priority.

He called on schools to begin gathering data on campus crime, noting that incentives to do so will be included in the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which will be up for renewal in Congress as part of the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Current federal law requires colleges and universities, but not schools, to track such trends.

Mr. Riley encouraged schools to overcome their fear that collecting and reporting such data "will damage their schools' reputation.''

"We can't develop programs that serve the needs of our children until we have a clear idea of the problems that they face,'' he said.

Reno's Agenda

Many participants said they were pleased that, in contrast to her predecessors in the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Attorney General emphasized prevention over punishment during her 20-minute speech.

"It makes no sense to prosecute somebody for a serious crime, dump him into a detention facility for six months, and then dump him out onto the streets without anything more,'' Ms. Reno said. "Guess what he's going to be doing again in no time flat?''

If judges are given the resources to "follow that child with a carrotand-stick approach'' through education, drug treatment, and job training and placement, she said, "we can make such a significant difference.''

Ms. Reno said more attention must be paid to the root causes of violence, including domestic abuse and teenage pregnancy.

She also recommended:

  • Universal prenatal care and improved social services for children 3 and under.
  • Shortening the workday to 8 A.M. to 3 P.M. to let parents spend more time with their children.
  • Creating "full-service schools'' that offer social services to children and families and "free our teachers' time to teach.''
  • Urging the television industry to shun violent programs through boycotts of products advertised on such shows.

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