Rep. Scott, Juvenile Advocates Want Gun Discussion to Include Concerns of Urban Youth

Some congressional leaders and juvenile advocates are trying to include community-based youth programs in the public dialogue about gun rights and control, while also pushing back against the concept of placing police in schools.

Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) held a summit on Capitol Hill yesterday to promote the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education Act (the Youth PROMISE Act), Scott’s bill to fund community-developed action plans to reduce violence in high-crime areas. Meanwhile, a slate of organizations have circulated statements and held conference calls with the media to voice opposition to the prospect of stationing police at every school.

The already-controversial issue of gun rights and regulation was pushed to the forefront of public discourse in late December, when 26 students and faculty were shot to death by 20-year-old Adam Lanza at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The factors in that shooting – an unpredictable gunman shooting a high-capacity weapon inside of a school – bear little resemblance to the more frequent gun violence that affects youths in large urban areas.

“We live every day” with gun violence “on an individual basis,” said Rep. John Carney (D), who represents the Delaware district that includes Wilmington, speaking at the summit.

The PROMISE Act would authorize about $1.6 billion to help groups in violence-plagued areas to craft local plans of action and then implement them.

Thompson, who chairs the House Democratic Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, will also hold a hearing today at 1pm to discuss options for addressing gun violence while respecting the Second Amendment.

One of the options discussed will likely be the PROMISE Act, which Thompson endorsed yesterday at the summit.

“The PROMISE Act is an important part of where we need to go,” said Thompson, who is a gun owner, hunter and combat veteran. “This is a complex and comprehensive issue. We’re not going to just do away with magazines or rifles, and fix this.”

During the 111th Congress, the PROMISE Act had momentum on the House side. Scott could easily have moved the bill through the House, and said at the time that if it came to Obama’s desk, “I’m positive he would sign it.”

But Scott refused to match his bill with a similar Senate bill authored by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who directed much of the funding for violence prevention in her bill toward law enforcement agencies.

When Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 elections, Scott and Feinstein did make a behind-the-scenes attempt to “hotline” a merger of their bills through the House and Senate, drawing opposition from many of the advocacy groups that supported the PROMISE Act.

The last-ditch effort failed when a senator placed a hold on the bill, which stops a hotline effort in its tracks. Scott introduced the bill during the 112th Congress, but has yet to do so for the month-old 113th Congress.

The week before Scott’s summit, juvenile justice advocates and related organizations joined in several attempts to voice opposition to the idea of placing armed personnel in schools. The concept has been suggested in various forms by the National Rifle Association, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Vice President Joe Biden.

Many youth advocates say they oppose funding for school police because their presence leads to unnecessary involvement in the juvenile justice system for students accused of offenses that could be handled within the school disciplinary framework, particularly youth of color.

“Our experience with SROs shows that often, students are feeling a detrimental impact,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis, speaking on a press call on the subject. “It really has not just been about safety…they become an arm of the disciplinary system in many districts.”

“True safety will not result from having more guns in schools or other places where youth congregate,” said the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition, in a letter to Vice President Biden. “True safety comes from comprehensive, evidence-based approaches that have been demonstrated to reduce violence.”

Tanisha Denard, a youth organizer with the nonprofit Dignity in Schools, said on the call that police presence in her school “made me feel awkward and insecure. I’d feel guilty when I had nothing to feel guilty about.”

Denard said she was ticketed by school police repeatedly for tardiness while dealing with problems at home. “I was never allowed to explain why I was late,” she said.

Her $240 in tickets eventually prompted an arrest warrant, Denard said, and she was referred to the juvenile justice system.

On the same press call, two men involved in big city school safety expressed a different perspective on SROs. Such officers could be a good thing if they are trained and serve as members of the faculty, said Jonathan Brice, school support networks officer for Baltimore City Public Schools, assuming that the schools eliminated zero tolerance policies and hired an adequate amount of psychologists and counselors.

Gregory A. Thomas, former executive director of the Office of School Safety and Planning with the New York City Department of Education, said, “If schools don’t rely on them to enforce the disciplinary code, it can be good.”

For opponents of hiring SROs or other armed school personnel, the task of persuasion has moved to the local level. President Obama chose not to seek any legislation that might require schools to provide armed guards, but did include among his executive actions the provision of “incentives for schools to hire school resource officers.”

This will likely be accomplished through the Community Oriented Policing Services program at the Department of Justice – which could make school resource officers (SRO) a funding priority – and through a $150 million school safety program, if Congress appropriates funds for it.

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