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July 12, 2014, 10:15 am

Treat youth violence as a health concern

The recent horrific attack inside a Connecticut elementary school has sent a wave of anxiety among parents across the country. Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. had a very good security system in place, and the teachers and staff there was well trained, but no system and no amount of training can create a completely secure environment. By every measure, students are safer in school than anywhere else.

Gun violence in Chicago has claimed a 15-year-old girl who only recently had marched with her school band in Washington at President Obama’s inauguration, continuing an escalating trend of deadly shootings on the city’s South Side.

The National Center on Education Statistics reported that the total number of school-associated violent deaths as of 2011 was over 1,500!

The contentious debate about gun control may represent a small piece of the answer, but it will never be all of it. Gun advocates assert that it is more—more guns, more armed people (including teachers) and more officers in schools—that will ensure our children are not mowed down by an assault weapon-wielding maniac. It is, they assert, the American way, and our constitutional right, to pack heat wherever we go. These arguments are deeply seated in a neoliberal philosophy that equates manhood to violence, asserts that government-sponsored gun control is akin to fascism, and promotes the sort of rugged individualism that characterizes the typical American response to complex social issues.    

While bullies, gangs, weapons and substance abuse all contribute to the fear experienced by many of today's students, violence in America's neighborhoods and communities cannot be overlooked.

More than ever before, today's schools are serving children from dysfunctional homes, children living in poverty, children of teenage parents, and special education students. Unfortunately, resources to adequately serve the total range of needs presented by these students are becoming increasingly limited. Adequate parental supervision and control of these students has weakened, and many students have diminished respect for all forms of authority, including the authority of school personnel.

As a result, schools are confronted with problems of students possessing weapons, students involved with gang recruitment and rivalry, and students engaged in drug trafficking, both as sellers and buyers. Such problems lead to violent acts in and around schools. In order to create a safe environment that is conducive to learning, schools must implement safety plans and comprehensive prevention programs that address the root causes of violence.

Almost without exception, every major city in America is seeing record numbers of young people; mostly African-American males, die as a result of gun violence.

Although high-profile school student shootings have increased public concern for student safety, you may be surprised to know that school-associated violent deaths account for less than 1 percent of homicides among school-age children and youths.

So you see, this is not a “school problem”.

At what point do we start to see this as a public health epidemic? A public health approach treats violence as we treat a disease, as we treat an epidemic.

We can start with the mental health component.

Mental and behavioral health are essential components of young people’s overall health and wellbeing. It affects how young people think, feel and act; their ability to learn and engage in relationships; their self-esteem and ability to evaluate situations and options and make choices. A person's mental health influences the ability to handle stress, relate to other people, and make decisions.

Four million children and adolescents in this country suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments at home, at school, and with peers. It is estimated that one in 10 children and adolescents suffer from mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment. However, in any given year, it is estimated that fewer than one in five of such children receives needed treatment.

Who’s calling for increases in mental health services available to these young people?

An alarming 65 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls in juvenile detention have at least one mental disorder. We are incarcerating youths with mental disorders, some as young as 8 years old, rather than identifying their disorders early and intervening with appropriate treatment.

Early and effective mental health treatment can prevent a significant proportion of delinquent and violent youths from future violence and crime.

With any other cause of death where African Americans suffer disproportionately (heart disease, cancer, diabetes), it is universally accepted that education, access, social/economic factors are centrally responsible factors. Why are we ignoring not applying the same logic with the public health epidemic of youth violence?

Throughout history, “epidemics” are commonly thought to involve outbreaks of acute infectious disease, such as measles, polio, or streptococcal sore throat. If this were a flu epidemic, all sorts of vaccines and preventive measure would be put in place and implemented. Unfortunately, just like the cholera in Haiti, it gets the headlines for a few days, then a return to business as usual.

We are so consumed and focused on blaming public school superintendents and police commissioners across America for not doing enough, we can’t see the forest for the trees! We have conveniently put this issue in a neat little box called “youth violence."

Education is one of the strongest predictors of health: The more schooling people have the better their health is likely to be. Although education is highly correlated with income and occupation, evidence suggests that education exerts the strongest influence on health. More formal education is consistently associated with lower death rates, while less education predicts earlier death. The less schooling people have, the higher their levels of risky health behaviors, such as smoking, being overweight, or having a low level of physical activity. High school completion is a useful measure of educational attainment because its influence on health is well studied, and it is widely recognized as the minimum entry requirement for higher education and well-paid employment. A public health approach focuses on risk factors and protective factors. It does not focus on a reactive response of criminal justice, which makes the threat of punishment a primary deterrent.

Seldom have health and education professionals been in a better position to work together to achieve common goals. Rarely has a single problem contributed to so many adverse social, economic, and health conditions. Our nation’s young people deserve no less than a concerted effort to give young people a gateway to lifetime health and success.

Interventions to reduce school dropout rates seek to change individuals, families, schools, school systems, or public policies related to poverty, welfare or employment.

What is needed instead is a critical examination of the school environment, including how our schools are structured, what they teach, and how they do so. Numerous academic studies have found school climate to be the most important protective factor when it comes to violence. Teachers relate not just to school shootings, which, although horrifying when they happen are actually quite rate, but to other forms of violence that young people experience on a daily basis—physical, emotional and verbal bullying by peers and school climate, sexual harassment, in many schools, corporal punishment. 
The schools in which these forms of violence are least likely are those in which all persons are treated with dignity. Safe schools are structured in ways that reduce or eliminate hierarchies.  Safe schools are not, like so many schools today, built like and operated like prisons.

The problem of youth violence is complex and our response needs to draw on the best that all sectors and disciplines have to offer.

Youth violence and school safety are public health problems. Let’s not be in denial.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible.

 

Glenn Ellis is a health advocacy communications specialist. He is the author of “Which Doctor?” and “Information is the Best Medicine.” A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on health equity and medical ethics.

For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com.