Efforts to stop youth violence are being fought on multiple fronts, in various ways and in numerous cities and communities. One of the national campaigns – the Do the Write Thing Challenge – gathered and paused for an assessment in Memphis this weekend.
Around the United States, the Do the Write Thing (DtWT) challenge involves thousands of volunteers in citywide and statewide programs. The focus is twofold – engage middle school students and learn what they think causes a young person to become violent, and then to take steps with youth to prevent such violence from happening.
With that in mind, the chairpersons of efforts involving 46 states met at the Peabody Hotel downtown on Saturday (Feb. 22nd). All came ready to share what they are doing, the challenges they're facing and the opportunities they've discovered or created. It's one of two annual meetings and the first in Memphis in about seven years, according to City Councilman Harold Collins, coordinator of the Memphis and Shelby County program. Shelby County District Atty. Gen. Amy Weirich chairs the Memphis program.
Designated to report on the local effort, Collins talked Friday with The New Tri-State Defender, sharing reflections on that efforts three-pronged focus: to keep young people from joining gangs, to increase attendance in schools through the Shelby County District Attorney General's Truancy Reduction Initiative and to provide opportunities for children or students to make better choices for themselves.
"We can report that the last fiscal year we've had a decrease in the number of students who have been taken into juvenile custody for criminal and violent acts," said Collins. "We can also report that in the District Attorney's 13 truancy initiative reduction schools we are reducing truancy at a rate of about 25 to 30 percent or in this case, we've increased attendance at many of our schools by about 35 to 40 percent.
"Usually the schools we have or had were running about 50 percent in attendance," said Collins. "But most of our schools now are running at the level of about 92, 93 percent."
Why the change?
Collins, special assistant to the Shelby County district attorney, said the DA's office has staff in each of the 13 truancy initiative reduction schools, tracking attendance on a daily basis. When a student misses five days of school without an excuse, they and their parents are immediately summoned to General Sessions court to address the issue. Parents and students are held accountable for not missing any more days.
It is, said Collins, a systematic effort. So, how is Memphis doing compared to other places?
Collins points to a recent report showing Memphis ranked fourth nationally as one of the most dangerous cities in America. Beyond the actual crimes, Collins touched on the trickle-down effect that affects young people's perceptions about their safety.
"I think we're probably just like all the other major metropolitan communities in this country –most are high African-American communities, most of them are high unemployment and uneducated communities," he said.
Does that mean Memphis has the opportunity to become a model?
"Absolutely," said Collins. "I think that we might become a model sooner than you think."