Politics

Holder speaks on school violence, critics question federal role

Attorney General Eric Holder says the Justice Department has a central role to play in tackling the problem of youth violence, but some education experts are skeptical of the federal government’s hand in the matter.

At the National Forum on Preventing Youth Violence held in Washington on Tuesday, Holder said that collaboration between the government and the localities, not working in isolation, would lead to a more effective solution for stopping violence among kids.

Ron Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in California, said although he sees some value in this type of national collaboration on solving the problem, imposing federal mandates is not a good use of resources right now.

“As I look at the budget situation today, I think the country needs fewer regulations and requirements,” Stephens said. “And I think that education as much as anything else needs to be left to the local communities in accordance with what their own needs are.”

President Barack Obama first made this issue a top priority after the murder of Derrion Albert, an honor student from Chicago’s South Side, was caught on a cell phone video and went viral on the Internet in late 2009. Obama sent Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Chicago to address the teen’s brutal murder.

At the forum, Holder and Duncan each reviewed their agency’s progress in stemming youth violence. Officials of six cities—Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Salinas and San Jose—also noted efforts begun last fall at Obama’s urging to reduce violence among young people.

“I think historic investments are being made,” Holder said. “For the first time the Justice Department is directing resources for the express purpose of reducing childhood exposure to violence.”

However, the administration is focused mainly on funding grant programs that deal with youth safety, such as the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods program.

The administration has not issued any federal safety mandates so far, but stimulus money is used to fund programs like Chicago’s Safe Passage program.

Christopher Mallette, Chicago’s director of Community Safety Initiatives, said he felt the federal government showed it’s working to walk the talk on reducing youth violence.

“The commitment of the federal government to work collaboratively with the localities,” Mallette said, “is like the bridge between silos.”

CEO for the Center on Education Policy, Jack Jennings, said he thinks ultimately students’ safety has to lie with the districts, and the schools within those districts, but the president can help to raise awareness for the issue.

“I doubt whether he can credibly mount a campaign [for safety] based on much money,” Jennings said. “The best he can do is put a spotlight on the issue and get the best information out there.”

From looking at the crime statistics, Jennings said, violence involving school-age children has dropped over the last five years. But the problem hasn’t gone away.

Stephens agrees the problem still persists and responsibility needs to be taken by the local communities, but that it doesn’t hurt to keep the issue on the federal agenda.

“The greatest energies and efforts really need to be taken at the local level,” he said, “because as much as anything it continues to be a local issue.”