The violent deaths of two metro Atlanta teenagers a week apart – allegedly at the hands of peers – has sparked a debate among members of a local violence prevention organization.
Members of the Metropolitan Atlanta Violence Prevention Partnership (MAVPP), discussed the tragedies, and more specifically how to thwart similar ones, during its monthly meeting this week. The partnership, a who’s who of more than 200 local violence prevention groups, boasts a diverse membership that spans the spectrum from the Emory (University) Injury Control Center (EICC) and the Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, local churches and law enforcement agencies. Attendees batted around an array of ideas Tuesday, including implementing large-scale community reform initiatives along with anger management counseling and expanded educational opportunities for young people and their parents.
“I’d like to see more intervention aimed at the community,” says Shakiyla Smith, EICC deputy director. “A lot of times we put the responsibility on the shoulders of children to change certain behaviors, but that’s not quite fair if you’re in an environment where it’s hard to have a non-violent response because you will be eaten alive. We need to focus on solutions that build better communities that can protect these boys so that they can make better choices.”
Rev. Mark Anthony Mitchell of Atlanta Urban Church says many young people resort to violence because their current lives don’t reflect a viable future.
“What we are seeing is a failure of the educational system; 85 percent of our children are going nowhere,” he says. “Our kids are dropping out of school. More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, our schools remain separate and unequal. Eight out of 10 of our kids have no father in the home. If we’re going to address the issues of violence in our community we have to deal with these core issues that are going on with our youth. If we’re going to tell them to stop the violence we have to provide them with alternatives.”
The evocative discussion centered around the deaths of Dequavious Mapp, 18, who was one of three teenagers shot after a Rockdale County house party that swelled out of control Saturday night. The high school senior later died at Atlanta Medical Center. Early Nov. 7, 18-year-old Bobby Tillman of Douglasville was beaten and stomped to death after another unruly house party. Young people have been charged in connection with both deaths.
Authorities in Conyers have said they will be implementing a “zero tolerance” policy toward house parties, but MAVPP Convener and Chairperson James Griffin says the partnership’s efforts aim to go a step further.
“The police have to do what they have to do; they have to do their job, but we’re about prevention,” he says. “We prefer to support initiatives that institute a skill set in the partygoers that makes them unlikely to engage in physical or psychological harm to each other. We want to implement opportunities for them to engage in higher quality relationships.”
Von Meador agrees that the solutions lie deeper than a crackdown on parties. Meader, deputy director of operations for Bagley Youth Development, says he was disturbed when teens in a recent group therapy session asserted that Tillman’s attackers should not receive stiff sentences for their actions.
“Young people are desensitized from violence these days; their perception of violence is quite different from that of previous generations,” he says. “A lot of kids today don’t feel like they have self value so they can’t embrace the humanity of others. Many of them don’t see themselves as having a future and that reflects in their actions. That’s what really has to get addressed.”
Attendee Ralph Hawthorne says the tragedies should serve as another wake up call to partnership member organizations to step up direct intervention work."We need to be reaching out directly to the young people in what I call the hot spots where they hang out," says Hawthorne, who leads anti-dog fighting initiatives for the Humane Society of the United States. "We know that there are going to be incidents like this, so we need to talk to them before something takes place where they feel that they are being disrespected and respond violently. It's about getting them to think about the consequences before the act of violence takes place."
Griffin concurs. He says the recent tragedies only underlie the dire need for the comprehensive violence prevention “battle plan” that his organization plans to unveil at a December 7 breakfast for community stakeholders.
“When you’re in a war, even though you’re working on a battle plan, soldiers are going to fall,” says Griffin, a MSM research associate professor. “That’s not to say that these lives are not of value, all of them are, but we’ve been focusing on creating a comprehensive plan because that is essential. A lot of people [from the member organizations] are frustrated that we have to keep meeting so much. They want the plan like yesterday.”
Griffin says the partnership, believed to be the only organization in the country focused on eradicating all types of violence, has been working on the plan since December 2007. It will be implemented next month among partnership member organizations in six metro counties, including Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb, Clayton, Gwinnett and Douglas.
“We’re going to articulate the battle plan by age group with science-based and innovative violence prevention programs,” he says. “We want to provide a prescription for parents, faith leaders, political leaders, educators and so on. It’s essentially a wish list for violence prevention initiatives. Each of our partners will get marching orders that they can implement on every level from the kids to the home in the communities that we serve.”
They are also working on prevention measures on the policy level, he says. The organization has teamed up with the Legislative Black Caucus to support the drafting of legislation advocating for the institution of a “pardons and parole” type process for juvenile courts.
“There aren’t a lot of options for sentencing [juveniles] and we want that to change,” he says. “We want to create more opportunities for young people who get in trouble with the law to be referred to evidence-based programs. Instead of warehousing them in the detention centers, we want them to get into programs that can help turn them into productive tax-paying citizens.”
Partnership members also suggested more aggressive measures, like holding parents and guardians of youth offenders more accountable for their children’s behavior. Some contend parents should be arrested and incarcerated when their child acts out.Reginald Crossley of Fulton County Humans Service Department adds that parents shouldn’t be “locked up for the sake of locking them up."
“They should have life skills training mandated by the court,” he says. “If they don’t fulfill those requirements, only then they should be incarcerated.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.