When University of Chicago researchers set out to prevent gun violence — a similar initiative to the data-driven approach Miami-Dade announced last month — they quickly learned that identifying who was at the highest risk of getting shot was the easy part. One of the young men they had flagged was struck by a bullet during the course of the study and managed to survive after his program-appointed mentor rushed him to the hospital.
The hard part, it turned out, was finding a way to get those students back on track. In 2009, the Chicago school district paired each of the 250 students identified by the researchers with full-time mentors at a cost of $15,000 each — but the program made little difference in keeping them from failing classes or getting into trouble.
Chicago’s mixed experience underscores the massive challenges facing Miami-Dade as the county grapples with how to keep its students safe from the shootings that have claimed dozens of young lives in recent years. In September, a coalition of organizations and government agencies including the school district announced that it had identified 2,000 students at high risk of shooting or getting shot based on their attendance, behavioral problems and academic performance.
People always come together [after shootings] but then they scatter back out to their places. I hope it’s not another case where everybody scatters.
Quinton Parrish, an instructor at an educational program called Compass Youth
Now the coalition, called Together for Children, hopes to avoid Chicago’s pitfalls by asking the community for help developing a plan. Over the past month, the coalition has hosted a series of meetings across the county to discuss what should be done in the face of a seemingly intractable problem.
Opinions on whether the data-driven approach will work vary, and some at the meetings wondered whether interest in tackling the problem can be sustained.
“People always come together [after shootings] but then they scatter back out to their places. I hope it’s not another case where everybody scatters,” said Quinton Parrish, an instructor at an educational program called Compass Youth, who was attending a meeting at South Dade Regional Library in late September. Parrish said he was encouraged to see representatives from the police and school board in the room. “I hope they’re on to something,” he said.
“We’re hoping that it’s not more of the same,” said Mcarthur Richard, a member of a community group called the Circle of Brotherhood. “It’s been the same cycle, the same groups, the same organizations here for years and years.”
But Dorothy Zeigler, a chaplain and former teacher, was hopeful. “We’ve come to realize that this is not just one group’s problems,” she said. “Everybody has an idea, but everybody is holding those ideas inside and sharing them is the way.”
Everyone seems to agree that there is no easy solution to youth violence.
At North Dade Middle School on Tuesday evening, a group of about 40 people crowded into two brightly decorated classrooms to discuss which services and activities are needed to keep at-risk students out of trouble. In one of the classrooms, an audience of mainly educators, county employees, community groups and counselors went through the litany of programs that have been attempted in Miami-Dade and elsewhere in the country: programs that pay parents to get involved, programs that focus on students’ self-esteem, sports programs, college prep programs, job programs and the list went on and on.
93 the percentage of students identified as high-risk who receive free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty
Some, they agreed, had been more successful than others. There were well-intentioned efforts that struggled to find funding, and others that had proved ill-equipped to deal with traumatized children.
“We’re really in a state of crisis here,” said Michele Wyatt-Sweeting, the director of a community mental health center, urging the group to focus on programs that address trauma. “It’s a very sad state and it’s almost like the entire community is in a PTSD state.”
By the numbers
Close to two-thirds of the students identified by Together for Children are boys, and 93 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. More than half are African American and another 39 percent are Hispanic.
The effort also aims to start young: nearly a quarter of those identified are under the age of 11.
When the initiative was first announced in September, the coalition proposed some possibilities for interventions, including truancy prevention programs, but Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said they are waiting to get community input before deciding on a specific plan.
Together for Children has been careful “not to run into solutions without appropriate, extensive conversations with the community,” Carvalho said. “We actually want the research and understanding of best practices to then in collaboration with the community, to result in a community action plan that is deployable, fundable and measurable.”
When Chicago Public Schools launched their violence prevention program in 2009, researchers considered a set of academic and behavioral indicators similar to the ones Miami-Dade is using, but settled on just three variables: gender, race and how many years behind a student was in school. They focused on boys, who were much more likely to be victimized, said University of Chicago researcher John List, and were able to zero in on a group of 250 children who were statistically at least ten times more likely to get shot than the average child.
Although the school district struggled to find the right program to help the at-risk youth, List believes the idea of using data to pinpoint students with the greatest need is a worthwhile approach. Researchers did not find that the initiative had a measurable impact on violence, but List said it did help students stay in school longer.
“We want to help boys as soon as we can, but we also want to put our dollars where they’re most effective,” he said. “I think it’s successful in the sense that it’s worth the investment.”