Youth Promise Act, other measures aim for safer learning environments

Research has shown that 86 percent of public elementary and secondary schools experience criminal incidents. Destructive, demeaning and even violent behavior in schools have become so commonplace that many are desensitized to it, and simply write it off as a normal part childhood. However, intimidation and violence in schools can cause serious problems for students, both academically and socially.

A recent study found that schoolchildren who torment others, or are victims of bullying themselves, may face higher risks of anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders later in life. Aside from the damaging social effects and embarrassment of school teasing and violence, numerous studies have shown that it is also detrimental to academic achievement. In the U.S., an estimated 160,000 children miss school every day out of fear of attack or intimidation by other students. Bullying is also associated with other violence-related behaviors, including carrying weapons and fighting, and alternatively, for the victims, sustaining injuries from such actions.

Additionally, violence extends beyond the classroom. As we know, the majority of youth engage in delinquent activities after the school day ends. Quality after-school programs can provide alternatives to at-risk children, keeping them off the street and encouraging their involvement in a variety of educational and enrichment activities.

At a roundtable on Youth Violence Prevention that I recently hosted at home in Delaware, I learned from teachers, law enforcement, juvenile justice officials, community leaders, and academics about what is working to keep kids safe, both inside and outside of school.

These leaders agreed that early childhood programs such as Head Start; mentoring programs such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters; after school activities; and community and family involvement are all integral to student success.

Crime, intimidation or violence in school can impact every state and congressional district, no matter its size, location or socioeconomic status.  In the last school year, 22 violent felonies and 572 cases of bullying were reported to the Delaware Department of Education.

To address the issue, the state has a bullying prevention law in place. 

At the federal level, Congress has taken important first steps toward reducing school crimes and violence to improve school safety with the enactment of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) in 2002. I can’t think of a better issue to unite both parties in Congress than one that seeks to protect our children when they are in school. Surely, together we can uncover and advance the best ways to prevent youth violence and encourage school safety.

The No Child Left Behind Act contains a number of provisions designed to provide states and school districts with resources to address school safety at elementary and secondary schools. This includes the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act to provide federal funds to states and school districts to support drug and violence prevention efforts; provisions related to persistently dangerous schools, in which students may transfer to safer schools if they attend a school identified as being persistently dangerous; and the Partnerships in Character Education program, which provides funds to states and school districts to design and implement effective character education programs.

Additionally, it may help to strengthen the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) to further reduce juvenile crime and rehabilitate young offenders.  By promoting strong prevention and intervention programs, we can keep youth out of the juvenile justice system and reduce crime in the long run. 

Another bill that focuses on prevention is the Youth Promise Act (H.R. 1064), which I introduced with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). The Youth Promise Act would fund evidence-based programs and provide communities with the resources to bring together law enforcement, teachers, and community leaders in an effort to prevent youth violence and gang crime. This legislation is gaining momentum on the Hill with 228 cosponsors and I am hopeful that we will have a vote on that bill soon in Congress.

Although I am pleased with the actions taken by states and Congress to address school safety and youth violence, more can be done to promote and utilize the programs that are working. The crime statistics continue to alarm me and I am hopeful that we will examine this issue further, and ultimately enact policies to keep youth on a positive track. Without our attention, many of our nation’s children will be subject to a cycle of violence and fall through the cracks.

Castle is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.