Three weeks into the school year in Miami-Dade, a fourth-grader and two teenagers have already been killed by gun violence.
It’s a grim reality that in some of Miami’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, elementary school students have been struck down on their own doorsteps, playing outside and on the way to the movies. For older kids, the risk of getting caught up in gun violence — either as perpetrators or victims — is even greater.
On Tuesday, a coalition of government and law enforcement agencies, local nonprofits, and business and education groups, including the Miami-Dade public school district, announced an innovative and potentially controversial new effort to stem the bloodshed: using data to identify and help at-risk children before they become statistics.
The coalition, which calls itself Together for Children, has zeroed in on 20 zip codes where the majority of violent crimes impacting children occur. Out of the children who attend school in these zip codes, the coalition has identified roughly 2,000 individual students at high risk of getting caught up in the cycle of violence.
That determination was based on six benchmarks the coalition analysis found were often associated with youth violence: poor school attendance, behavioral issues, low standardized test scores in math and reading as well as math and reading classroom skills that lag behind grade level.
The 2,000 students, whose identities the school district says will be kept strictly confidential, all have at least four of the risk factors. Under the coalition plan, which could be tweaked after a series of up-coming community workshops, those kids will be referred to extra support services, such as truancy prevention and therapy programs. A smaller group of 127 students, whose family situations already are being monitored by the Florida Department of Children and Families in addition to meeting at least four of the six criteria, have been identified as the highest-risk group of all.
The idea behind the initiative, said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, is “earmarking resources and narrowing the scope of the challenge from a school system of 360,000 kids down to a manageable number.”
“We never knew before now who is at the greatest risk,” he said. “We knew neighborhoods, but we didn't know which students.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said there is no quick fix to youth violence but he predicted the program would pay dividends in coming years. The county, he said, has allocated close to $3 million to its juvenile services department to provide programs for the at-risk youth and plans to create additional youth programs through the parks department.
“You're not going to see the benefits of this program right away, because what we are going to do, what we are trying to do, what I think will be a model for the rest of the country, is actually stop violence before it happens,” Gimenez said.
The new approach, the product of five months of research, data analysis, and coalition meetings, was unveiled at a press conference in front of the Miami-Dade Children’s Courthouse. In addition to the school district and mayor’s office, the coalition also includes the Office of the State Attorney, the Florida departments of Juvenile Justice and Children and Families, The Children’s Trust, United Way of Miami-Dade and several other agencies and organizations.
Carvalho said many agencies have been seeing similar problems, but with a too-narrow focus.
“If we are all able to look at it from the same lens, we recognize that the same children at risk of being victims or perpetrators are the same children who have usually had some interaction with protective services, the same children who skip school or fail to attend school regularly, who perform at lower proficiency levels than their companions,” he said.
The support services will vary by age group. At-risk elementary and middle school students will be steered toward truancy prevention programs, while older students who have had brushes with the law will benefit from additional re-entry centers providing educational and other support services for the transition back to regular schools.
One focus of the initiative will be preventing absenteeism, a major issue in Miami-Dade. During the 2015-2016 school year, some 12,000 elementary school students within the 20 zip codes identified by the coalition had ten or more absences.
Toddlers and preschoolers living in high-risk neighborhoods are not included within the list of 2,000 students, but the coalition hopes to expand early childhood education programs to ensure that young children from these areas don’t arrive at kindergarten already behind their more affluent peers.
So far, the coalition has been meeting behind closed doors, but it now hopes to get input from local communities on what services are needed to best help the identified at-risk youth. The coalition is hosting 6 p.m. meetings on Sept. 19, 20, and 21 at Arcola Lakes, North Dade Regional, and South Dade Regional libraries to explain the initiative and ask for community support.
While the coalition has yet to collect community feedback, there are likely to be questions about privacy and potentially stigmatizing some students, schools or communities. Carvalho also acknowledged that some residents might be wary of the idea of a partnership between the school district and law enforcement agencies.
He stressed that the district will not share the list of at-risk youth or other sensitive data collected as part of the initiative with law enforcement agencies. “It is not lost to us that the issue of trust, which applies to all governmental institutions, must be addressed if we are to honestly and deliberately take on the issue of youth violence,” he said.
Shirley Johnson, president of the NAACP’s Miami-Dade branch, said she is concerned that the children on the list might still be stigmatized. "Our children are very smart and they know when they are separated, they know when they are segregated, they are very, very knowledgeable, they know a lot of the things that we don't know,” she said.
Activist Tangela Sears, who said she was asked to help the coalition get the community involved in shaping the effort, called the initiative a step in the right direction.
"Being able to identify kids may save some lives," she said. “I think it's a great idea. Something needs to be done. We are losing our babies."
Sears said the critical benchmarks should focus the help where it is most needed without broad-brushing entire communities.
"I think this is a way to identify programs that are helping and direct resources there," she said.
Sears said more still needs to done, including law enforcement focusing more attention on solving shootings and prosecuting young offenders. She is also hoping the new plan will address funding for community-based programs that are already working with young children to keep them off the streets.
The school district and government agencies already have tried a number of approaches to curb the youth violence, which has been charted in the Herald’s on-going Children Under the Gun series, including hiring more guidance counselors, expanding community policing and keeping schools in some at-risk neighborhoods open longer.
But the violence has remained stubbornly persistent. So far, 2016 has been a grim year for shooting deaths.
By early March, ten young people under the age of 20 had already been killed in Miami-Dade -- the equivalent of one young life lost every week. Most of the victims were teenagers, but the shooting deaths of younger children have also taken a heartbreaking toll on local communities.
In the past decade, at least 19 children under the age of 13 have been killed by guns in the county.
Last week, 8-year-old Jada Page was shot in the head shortly after beginning fourth grade and died at the hospital two days later. Two teenagers, Isaiah Solomon, 15, and Antquinisha Flowers, 18, were also killed during the first two weeks of school, and another, 17-year-old Arthur Mann, was wounded.