Fighting crime: An ounce of prevention

While news out of our U.S. Justice Department appears to be dominated of late by the Russian probe, intelligence leaks, the proposed travel ban and the dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, one area that must not get lost in the shuffle is crime prevention, especially those initiatives aimed at our nation’s youth.

“It was a peaceful day and we didn’t think anything was going to happen…then it ended up being a drive-by, and we had to get out of the way.”

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“It was a good day … we were walking … these two guys were fighting over something, and as soon as we turned the corner, we heard gunshots, a car pulled up, and we just started running.”

“I’m with my brothers and sisters, sitting on the porch, and this lady walked by.  My brothers and sisters started talking about her, and they started to argue.  The lady got on the phone and then stared down the street.  A dude came from around the corner, with a blanket over something.  When he came up on the porch, he pulled a shotgun, and we all ran.” 

Sadly, these staggering admissions were shared by 13- and 14-year-old eighth graders taking part in a program run by the National Campaign to Stop Violence (NCSV), a non-profit organization that partners with local schools, law enforcement, juvenile judges and businesses, to engage kids who are literally caught in the crossfire of guns, abuse, bullying, gangs, drugs and violent crimes. 

To those of us who work regularly with youth in our most at-risk communities, these personal testimonies, while frightening, come as no surprise.  Through the work I’m doing with NCSV youth I can attest firsthand to the near-daily violence kids are exposed to regularly.  The shocking reality is that random and senseless crime, particularly violence, is all too commonplace in far too many neighborhoods and in far too many homes. In fact, an examination into many criminals’ pasts reveals a lifelong exposure to aggression, violence and rage, much of it beginning at home. Regular, repeated violence is a vicious cyclone that sweeps up innocent victims and creates new aggressors regularly.  This reality must serve as an immediate wake up call to decision-makers.  And prevention must be part of the urgent solution. 

Many are surprised to learn a big guy like me who now plays professional basketball was bullied as a kid. To say it was hard is an understatement.  I was lucky enough to have involved parents to talk to for strength and guidance.  But a lot of young people today don’t have role models to turn to.  As one participant shared, “If all you see is violence in your home or in your neighborhood, you have no other way of behaving because this is all you know.” 

What do we do to break this cycle? What do we do to curb this frightening violence which typically begets more violence?  Ask our nation’s educators and they’ll give you one clear and unequivocal answer: Prevention.

In fact, many of these educators have decided to take matters into their own hands.  They have teamed up with NCSV’s “Do the Write Thing” challenge to give students the opportunity to become part of the solution. Through a year-long program of classroom discussions, seminars, speakers and written expression, students communicate what they think should be done to reduce youth violence, and they each make personal commitments to do something to prevent it. Not only are these young people given an opportunity to express themselves, they are empowered to think about their future and to make better choices.  By emphasizing personal responsibility, students recognize their own potential to create a safer, more peaceful environment.  

The story behind NCSV is intriguing. After the Gulf War, hundreds of Kuwaitis were looking to express their gratitude to Americans for liberating their country.  Just as American soldiers freed their families from constant violence, the Kuwaitis decided to help Americans create solutions to our growing violence.  As of today, more than two million students have participated in NCSV’s Do the Write Thing program and a million of those students have written essays and personally accepted the Do the Write Thing “challenge” to prevent violence. The program is currently operating in 26 U.S. cities, and recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

We’ll never know exactly what causes some criminals hearts to fill with intense and senseless hate. But we do know that investing early with at-risk youth and opening the dialogue makes a big difference. Each student, when engaged and given an opportunity to express themselves and process the violence around them, can break the cycle in their own lives and serve as a role model to members of their community, young and old. The youth I work with are living testimony to the power of prevention.

A commitment from our elected officials and policymakers to prevent senseless crime before it happens must not be overshadowed by politics.  It should not get put on the back burner or lost in the shuffle of sexier headlines.  Serious federal and state dollars must be appropriated.  More initiatives like NCSV must sprout up. More students must be engaged and empowered to become part of the solution. Now is the time to act. An ounce of prevention can go a long way.

Buckets Blakes is a player for the Harlem Globetrotters and regularly speaks at elementary schools and youth community centers about “The ABCs of Bullying Prevention,” a program designed by the Globetrotters in coordination with NCSV.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.